Russian Roulette with Orcas, Ep. 164

On my first summer home from college, I found myself a bit behind on a search for a job. My high hopes to find a position in my field of engineering study had turned up empty. With just a year of advanced learning under my belt, it seemed like I was a charity case that no one wanted to take on. Before leaving for college, I had worked summers at a boat rental business in San Diego’s Mission Bay, far better than many of my other friend’s jobs working the fast food kitchen scene, but if I was going to have to revert to a mindless job, I wanted to try something different than the norm. I never liked to lean on friends, or more specifically, friend’s parents, but our family was connected to an executive at Sea World, and he was more than happy to line up a summer gig for me. When I showed up for work on the first day, I assumed I was going to be taking tickets or flipping over-priced theme park burgers. So you can imagine my surprise when I was told I would be a rotating crew member prancing around the park in a full-length costume of none other than Shamu, the iconic killer whale made lovable and non-threatening for all of the young children visiting the park. On one hour rotations, I would suit up, after spraying down the insides with deodorant, and walk around and pose for pictures with huge groups of little kids in tow. I’ll be the first to admit I’m not an extravert, but something fundamentally transformative happens when you dress up beyond recognition. You can be anyone you want and no one is the wiser. It was my summer acting sabbatical, and by far the funnest summer job I’ve ever had. After posing with me, little kids would tug the shirt tails of their parents for a stuffed Shamu toy or themed snow globe at the conveniently located adjacent store. And so it was good for business, before up-selling was really a thing. I’d hang up the costume at the end of the day, ride my bike an hour home, rest up and do it all again the next day. The not-so-subtle messaging for parents and kids was the undeniable charm, and dare I say cuddliness, of Shamu the Killer Whale. He might have a scary name, but if you could pose with him, buy him in a stuffed package, and watch a full-sized one leap out of the show tank and allow a trainer to stick his whole head in the giant mammal’s mouth, he’s not really that dangerous, right? Wrong!!

Killer whales, or orcas, as they are more appropriately named, have been known to injure or kill their trainers, a fact that Sea World was trying hard to play down. But yet, on the whole, they have largely been benign to humans, as people watch them safely from whale watching boats in popular sites like off Orcas Island in the Pacific Northwest. However, starting last summer, orcas started to attack boats off the Portuguese and Spanish Atlantic coasts, causing damage to sailboats in particular, and leading many boats to be towed to port for haul out and repairs. Orcas had visited boats in this region before, and in fact, they would commonly follow fishing boats that were netting their popular prey in these waters, the tasty tuna. But it was very rare for them to attack a boat. Yet, there were now regular reports of these ‘encounters’, as the scientists studying the matter would refer to the activity. Oddly, they had an affinity for sailboats; and, after swimming along next to the hull, they would turn more aggressive and push against the rudder, turning boats suddenly ninety degrees and causing injury to some skippers as the helm turned violently. They would often follow this up by biting at the rudder itself; and reports were coming in late last summer with pictures of boats hauled out and showing severely damaged rudders.

An example of Orca damage shared on Facebook

Our plans to leave the Med last summer had changed due to Covid, and while we stayed in Greece, we were still alarmed at the damage these orcas were doing. At one point last year the Spanish coast guard imposed a navigational restriction along the entire northwest coast of Spain for boats under 15 meters, which would have included our 12,6m Sea Rose. Reports were being gathered by a coalition of scientists called the Atlantic Orca Working Group, which showed ‘encounters’ from the northwest of Spain all the way down to Gibraltar. We hoped it was an anomaly last summer, but as sailboats started transiting the coast again this spring, reports started coming in again, with the most prevalent area for attacks being the stretch from Gibraltar to Cadiz, Spain. 

As Karen and I made our way westward from Greece, we read with angst the accounts of other sailboaters that had been attacked. There were times when multiple attacks occurred in one week. It was easily the biggest source of stress we had, even more than the long multiple day passages we were enduring between islands. As we pushed west along Spain’s Costa del Sol, the stress level continued to increase, like a kettle ready to boil over. How were we going to get through this gauntlet? During an attack, the risk of injury was high, and if we had to be towed to an unknown port for repairs, that could put a halt to the rest of our season, and disrupt the plans of friends coming to sail with us. 

Just two weeks before our planned passage between Gibraltar and Cadiz, sailboats were being struck almost every day. And no one, scientist or layperson, had any clear explanation why. Finally, a boater heading to Cadiz reported that they chose to stay tight against the shoreline, in water only 5-10m deep, with the theory that orcas don’t like shallow water. They had escaped orca-free. Indeed, most of the recent attacks were at least 5-8 nautical miles offshore. Then, another boater tried the same thing, providing a helpful GPS track of their entire route from Tarifa, just west of Gibraltar, hugging the cliffs and beaches along the 50 mile passage to Cadiz. The alternative we had been considering, of going far offshore and looping around to Portugal, seemed problematic as we had no way at that far distance from land and without a satellite phone to call for help if we were attacked. So, we latched on to the close-in-shore route. It felt good to have some kind of plan, instead of leaving the odds of an attack to chance, like a game of russian roulette. 

As a warmup for our orca avoidance strategy, we cautiously entered the busy harbor of Gibraltar, with its iconic angled rock precipice. We knew it would be busy but we were not at all prepared for the mayhem that greeted us as we rounded the corner of Europa Point. The harbor was full of tankers and cargo ships, some moving, others appearing to be stationary, but then suddenly moving again. Fast ferries were running between the harbor and Morocco, just 10 miles south. Work boats, supply boats, and pilot boats were running back and forth between the big ships. It seemed clear that pleasure boats like ours were at the bottom of the pecking order, and we were expected to avoid all of the commercial traffic despite any legacy rules of navigation. Worse than the large cargo ships were the many slightly smaller tankers doing pirouettes as they rafted up to the large ships, handed over bulky fuel hoses, and resupplied bunker fuel to these beasts of the sea. One car carrier had a tanker on both sides, taking on fuel while looking like a gargantuan trimaran.

Car carrier in Gibraltor being supplied with bunker fuel

They were anchored so close together that as we nosed around the stern of these rafted ships, another supply tanker might just be barreling down in front of us, or overtaking us from the stern. It was all hands and eyes on deck. Adding to the message of commercial-boats-welcome-others-not-so-much, we headed to an anchorage off the beach at La Linea, joining a few other boats at a spot rumored to be illegal for small boat anchoring. Boaters here were prone to being swatted away by the maritime police despite it being marked as an anchorage on the chart. Gibraltar is known as a good re-supply area. Fuel is duty free here, which might explain the preponderance of bunkering operations in the harbor. But for us, we just needed to find a grocery store. 

The colorful, but siesta-deserted, streets of La Linea

La Linea is technically part of Spain, and although we got lost on our walk to find a grocery store, we didn’t cross the line just five minutes south into the territory of Gibraltar. So close, yet so far!

With our stores replenished, we were left to debate the merits of staying on anchor at La Linea, with the threat of being asked to move in the middle of the night, or seeking out an anchorage across the expansive harbor. We chose the later, only to find out the anchorage we were headed toward also forbid anchoring, apparently because it was in a marine reserve area. With the amount of hydrocarbons being emitted by all of the big boats in this harbor burning putrid bunker fuel, the dirtiest fuel imaginable, it seemed like Gibraltar needed a lot more of these marine reserves. We were down to one bullet in the magazine, and that was the small harbor of Tarifa at the western end of Gibraltar Strait, requiring us to transit the Strait today … now, as dusk approached. The winds were uncharacteristically out of the east, making our westbound transit a bit more practical despite a strong eastbound current. Karen and I looked at each other and decided, with a combination of equal amounts bravado and angst, to go for it and run the Strait, even though we had already come 50 miles. Tarifa is a name you hear all of the time on the radio in these waters — ‘Tarifa Traffic’ is the radio handle that acts like the air traffic controller of vessel traffic through the Strait. The town also has a reputation for extremely high winds, with 40 knot blows not uncommon and a wind of at least 30 knots per day for 300 days out of the year. Hoping this would be one of the other 65 days, we raised our jib and motor sailed westbound close to the northern shore to get some relief from the counter current. As Tarifa started to come into view, we killed the engine and enjoyed 7 knots of boat speed with just the jib up. And just as quick, it wasn’t fun anymore. The wind speed hit 20 knots and we started to make a plan to furl the jib. Suddenly, I saw the anemometer shoot up to 38 knots. There it was, the 300 days per year statistic continuing to make its mark. I started cranking in on the winch to furl the jib and immediately the line became taut. Something was jammed. When you have high winds and can’t get the sail furled, it’s extremely dangerous. Rigging can break, sails can rip to shreds. Karen was trying to keep some tension on the jib sheet but the whipping of the jib was pulling the sheets out of her hands and slapping them mercilessly on the deck, with the jib itself snapping and cracking in the blow. We tried turning upwind slightly, but the furling line was still tight as a guitar string and we were headed directly for rocks on the north shore. I cranked the winch even harder, not sure what else to do, but fearing my actions might cause blocks, lines or furlers to explode into pieces under the load. Finally, I gave up and ran along the side deck to the bow, where the problem was clearly evident. As we started to furl the jib, slack sail material had caught the rolled up Code 0 halyard in its path, and tried to roll that line inside the jib. My cranking effort was about to do real damage. Back at the cockpit, we headed on a beam to the wind and let the jib out further, despite it cracking even louder in the wind, until it was free of its death grip on the Code 0 halyard. Sheets were snapping like a hundred school kids cracking their towels at once in a junior high school locker room. With the jib blowing away from the halyard, it furled up slowly and steadily, until the cacophony died down and we had the sails and lines all restrained and put in their place. We were both exhausted. The rocky northern shore kept looming closer and we breathed a sign of relief as we redirected Sea Rose under motor back westbound out the Strait. 

In the fading light and reduced heart rate, Karen guided us into the anchorage at Tarifa, where a few kite boarders were just wrapping up their day of play in the high winds. We crept into the beach slowly to find a good anchoring depth, dropped the hook, backed down to make sure it was set, and then shut down the engine. The day’s navigating was now over, thank goodness. 

Approaching Tarifa, tired and in need of a break
Lonely harbor of Tarifa

Tarifa is the southern most point of the European continent, and was the landing spot of the Moors as they took over the Iberian peninsula. All we needed to take was a quick dinner and flat bed. But we had been told by another boater about an excellent seminar on the orcas, recorded a few months ago by one of the lead scientists in the Atlantic Orca Working Group. It felt prudent to watch it before our run tomorrow through these orca-infested waters. There were a lot of theories about why the orcas started attacking sailboats, but the scientist Ruth Esteban, was hesitant without additional data to validate these theories. One that was most intriguing to me related to Covid 19 in a circuitous way. With fewer fishing boats and tuna nets in use since Covid, the orcas can’t hunt tuna in the same they used to. So they go after boats. Regardless, the working group’s suggestion if one were to have an ‘encounter’ was to furl sails, stop the engine, step away from the helm, and secure anything in the cabin that might come loose in a sudden movement of the boat. It was interesting to hear a scientist’s perspective, but in the end the video likely made us even more anxious.

In the morning, we posted a cheat sheet in the cockpit of what we would do if orcas approached us. I also mounted several cameras with various angles so that we could capture video to send to the working group. Karen constructed a detailed route in the chart plotter along the coast from Tarifa to Cadiz, keeping us in no more than 10-15m of water, while avoiding off-lying rocks and other hazards. And we discussed how we would handle watches. Without question, we would both be 100% dedicated to navigating until we were safely tied up in Cadiz. One person would be at the helm, the other up on the foredeck sweeping for shallows, other boats, and dorsal fins. This would allow the person at the helm to look down at the chartplotter as needed without worrying about hitting something. We agreed to wear our lifejackets all day and to switch positions every hour.

At the start, as we pulled up anchor at Tarifa with just enough morning light to see, it was somewhat anticlimactic. There was no wind, the water was flat, and the scenery tremendous. We never navigate this close to shore, but the upside is that we could enjoy the cliffs and rocks and beaches with clarity, as long shadows were cast upon the waterfront. When I took over at the helm, I found myself steering away from the coast and out to sea. I had to fight the subconscious thought that we were too close and could run aground. 

Hugging the coastline from Tarifa

Back on the foredeck, I found my mind drifting off at times. As much as you try, it is hard to singularly focus on a task for an hour at a time. Watching for passing cars at a crosswalk is one thing, but staring for an hour for an errant driver is another challenge all together. Still, we stuck to our plan, while taking in the beautiful views of the coastline. Then a call came in on the VHF. A boater was trying to reach Tarifa Traffic. We huddled around the handset to hear them explain how they had been attacked earlier this morning by orcas. We tried to get a lat/lon on their position, but were unsuccessful. Hearing a firsthand account of an attack made us all the more concerned. The only bright side was the fact their call was a bit scratchy, indicating that they were some distance away from us. But the attack had occurred earlier in the morning, and their location at that time was unclear. 

We approached the town of Barbate. The waters off of here had been a common area for attacks over the last few weeks, and boats that were disabled had been towed into the local boatyard. I could see in the distance the signature bright orange color of a search and rescue boat exiting the Barbate harbor entrance and heading out to sea at full throttle. We had not heard any calls on the radio, but it didn’t take much imagination to guess what they were doing. 

We followed the indent of the coast at Barbate tightly. Strangely, small fishing boats were scattered all over the waters here, some fishing close into shore, others motoring out to fish in deeper waters. We came up behind another sailboat leaving the Barbate harbor, but soon we turned north to follow the inshore route while they headed out into deeper waters. Had they not heard the warnings, and recommendations of other boaters? When we were in the Medicane last year, I remember having the same feeling, as we headed north a safe distance away while a few boaters headed south right into the path of the storm. 

Near Barbate, approaching Cape Trafalgar

Off of Barbate is Cape Trafalgar, site of the historic Battle of Trafalgar during the Napoleonic wars. Other than some fluky currents and shallow waters, we negotiated the sharp point of land without issue, passing a large collection of small fishing boats and even a group of kayakers. Again, we were left to wonder if they had heard of the recent orca attacks. Maybe we were being too cautious, I thought. As we cleared the Cape and navigated through a long stretch of shallow reefs, we heard a distinctly British women’s voice come on the radio, asking for news on the latest orca attack locations and how best to navigate around Cape Trafalgar. She was a stranger to me, but the tension and worry in her voice were unmistakable. When no one else replied, I hailed her on the radio, but other traffic got in the way of us connecting. And then it became clear why the radio traffic was so busy. We heard a clear call on the radio. A man was calling to a catamaran nearby them. He kept repeating that ‘they are leaving me and coming to you now. Watch out!’ We were understandably eager to find out their location. Two attacks in one day, and no position data. I called into Tarifa Traffic, as did other boats, asking for a relay of the boat’s coordinates. No answer came. Finally, in a wise move on their part, Tarifa Traffic started a Securite call, a general safety call to all vessels in the listening area. They reported an orca attack just offshore of Barbate, and announced the start of a navigation exclusion zone in that area, an area we had just passed through an hour before. That could have been us if we were further off-shore and we had not left so early from Tarifa. 

Later we heard that the orcas were going back and forth between two boats, causing damage to both. A search and rescue boat came to the scene and tried to scare the orcas away, but they continued to attack. One boat lost steerage and had to be towed into port. 

This was all chilling news as we tried to concentrate on our inshore route. We felt very fortunate to escape being attacked, but very sad for those who had been.

Staying close inshore on the remaining 20 miles to Cadiz was complicated by numerous submerged rocks, laid out in even rows like wheel tracks on a freshly cut lawn. It continued to surprise us how many sailboats were out in deep water, as if this was any random weekend afternoon of casual, blissful sailing. More sailboats kept coming out of the Cadiz harbor channel, lost in their tactics of when and where to tack, while we weary sailors speedily cut the channel buoys short to make it inside the protected harbor without delay. Nothing could have been better than the inner sanctum of Cadiz’s Marina Puerto America, inside the inner breakwater. As we nestled into our assigned slip, this time comfortably with a finger pier next to us just like docks back home, words can not properly capture how relieved we were to have made it through the gauntlet of orcas. We weren’t out of the woods completely, as a few attacks had come in from points further up the coast, but we were through the worst of it. It was time for a walk on terra firma, a quick dinner, and a long sleep!

Happily settled into Marina Puerto America in Cadiz

East Meets West, Ep. 162

With our last overnight crossing of the summer behind us, we just had one lengthy daytime crossing in front of us. I was elated! I’m sure when we cross the Atlantic, overnights will be as natural as the Greeks making yogurt, but for now, I was placing great value on a good night’s sleep. We kissed the hedonists, the naturalists – whatever you want to call the naked men and women of Ibiza and Formentara that seemed to outnumber the clothed variety – goodbye, executing our exit as soon as there was enough light to see in the morning. We aimed to knock off the 95nm distance to the mainland of Spain in one long day, trying our best to not arrive after dark, but to pick an anchorage free of obstacles if we did need to drop the anchor after sundown.

Continue reading “East Meets West, Ep. 162”

Night Moves, Ep. 161

There may be no place more iconic in the Mediterranean than the island of Ibiza. A bit like a stylish Rio de Janerio, with a good dose of Key West thrown in, Ibiza is the place you go to let go. In our previous visit to the Balearic Islands, we ran out of time, after several weeks in Mallorca and Menorca, to try out Ibiza. This time, Ibiza, on the rhumb line to the Spanish mainland, was unavoidable. Like Rio, there’s a party at every turn, and despite Covid, there were people shoulder to shoulder in stores, restaurants, bars and beaches. And in our region, there were loads of 20 somethings piled onboard sailboats, tour boats, and luxury chartered yachts. Our cruising guide described a world of nightclubs trying to out do each other, with, as an example, one version being a bring-your-skimpiest-bathing-suit foam party. It also described nudism as an accepted practice, choosing the interesting phrase that it was a ‘feature’ of the island. 

Continue reading “Night Moves, Ep. 161”

Far and Away, Ep. 160

260 nautical miles. That’s what stood before us as we raised our anchor from the island of San Pietro in southern Sardinia. This would be our longest crossing for the summer, as we proceeded with our mixed plan of sightseeing and boat movement out of the Med. It was slightly longer than our leg from Greece to Sicily, and for that one, we had woken up at 2am to try to squeeze the crossing into one and one-half overnights instead of a full two. We learned two important lessons from that approach. First, when you start out tired on a crossing, it doesn’t get any better. Second, when you are trying to arrive before nightfall on the second evening, to avoid a third night at sea, it makes you stressed about every little slow down in speed. We quickly realized we had to average six knots in order to make it to Sicily before dark, which made it hard to experiment with the sails in moderate winds. On this crossing to Mallorca, we had a good, solid night’s sleep, leaving in the early morning once the sun was up and visibility was clear. We were fully prepared to spend two nights at sea before our arrival. And it was evident right away how much better it felt. 

As we put San Pietro to our stern, the wind freshened out of the north, and we unfurled sails for a pleasant beam reach directly west to the Balearic Islands. Six knots would have been a great average, but we didn’t feel like we had to hit that for our arrival time, knowing we had a full third day’s worth of daylight if we needed it. Our speed of 5-5.5 knots was perfectly satisfactory, and it was blissful to turn off the engine. The solar panels were happily putting out lots of amps with the full sun rising above us, given our little off-grid home all the juice it needed, between the electronics, the autopilot, and the fridges. Life was good.

Like any crossing, we had spent most of the prior evening hunched over the weather forecasts, closely examining the similarities and differences of each model over the next two and a half days. We had chosen our departure to coincide with a lull in the normally active mistral winds that blow down with great force from the Gulf of Lyon off the French coast. These winds had been giving much joy to the Open Skiff racing contingent, but were more than we were looking for with their wind-whipped seas. Instead, we had a forecast of moderate northerly winds for the first day, and virtually no wind on the second day.

Weather forecast model for Day 1 and Day 2

The winds on our first day continued to freshen, our speeds improved and the first real potential for us to arrive early became clear. As nightfall approached, and we got closer to the second day’s forecast of non-existent winds, I expected that we would have to furl sails and start motoring, but the glorious wind held overnight, with the added bonus of a waxing moon to guide us along the way. 

Sunrise on Day 2 of the crossing

By the morning, with our good speeds since we departed, it became evident that we could arrive before nightfall and not have a second night at sea as long as we kept up the pace. So, as the wind eased off as forecasted, we kept the sails up but added a little boost from the engine to keep us moving. Normally, I’m not a big motor sailor. If there is wind to sail, then sail. If not, then don’t try to fake it by putting sails up and run the engine, tricking your fellow boaters out by your impressive speeds! However, impressions were of little importance on this quiet sea, and with the prospect of arrival before nightfall in our grasp, we were strongly motivated.

As planned on our second day, with a little help from the iron sail, we inched closer and finally by late afternoon we could make out the outline of Mallorca’s strikingly tall interior mountains on the horizon. We were aiming for the southeast tip of Mallorca, with a plan to round the point and tuck into a little anchorage on the inside, to avoid the building southerly winds coming in the evening. 

Approaching the tip of Mallorca at the end of the crossing

One of the benefits of sailing west and staying in the same timezone is that the sunset occurs later in the day. As we rounded the point at 9pm, we still had good visibility, enough to pick out a good place to drop the anchor on sand in the anchorage at El Caragol. 

All smiles as we finish our crossing from Sardinia

There wasn’t much at this little carve out of the rocky coastline except a beach, a few straggler beachgoers, and three other boats. That was fine by us, as all we wanted was something easy and low-frills, as we anchored up, had a quick bite, and headed to bed. We had put the longest crossing in the bank and could now rest assured that in terms of overnights we had only one more left, as we crossed to the Spanish mainland in a week or so. 

As we were maneuvering to drop the anchor, Karen had turned the bow thruster on briefly, only to find out that it spurted momentarily to life and then all the power went off, as if we had tripped a breaker. It was too late to troubleshoot it at the time, but in the morning, I jumped in the water on a hunch that maybe we snagged something in it’s little propellor. This had happened once before, as we were med mooring, and a dock line got pulled in and jammed the unit. Sure enough, as I swam towards the bow, I could see a small line floating in the water, probably leftover from a fish buoy. We could have snagged it somewhere along our route from Sardinia, or possibly right in the anchorage, but regardless, it was tightly wrapped numerous times around the propellor shaft. I kept thinking of the warnings about sticking your fingers into a jammed snowblower, and how our hand surgeon friend Bob gets a lot of calls early in the winter season back home in New England. But with a combination of delicate finger movements and brute force pulling, a wrap of line came unwound, and then more, and finally it was completely free of the bow thruster. Horrah!

Bowthruster jammed with stray line
The culprit, a bunch of loose fish buoy line

The next step in restoring the bowthruster involved opening up the control box and checking the fuse. As I suspected, the big 100a fuse was blown, and after the last occurrence, I had stocked up on a bag full of new fuses. Once a new one was in place, Karen turned on the joystick control and we were back in business with our bowthruster! It’s nice when a repair goes as straight forward as this.

Bowthruster fuse replacement

As we pulled away from the anchorage and pointed the bow across the expansive Bay of Palma, we were shocked by how many boats were underway all around us. Furthermore, nearly all of them were on AIS, so our chart plotter screen was a pick-up-stick pattern of vectors pointing every which way. Even fishing boats were transmitting their AIS position. This was a marked change from other Med countries, and especially for fisherman who seem to want to hide their secret fishing spots. The AIS dealers must have cut a deal for the boat owners of Mallorca! All of the new data on the screen kept us busy navigating.

On this excursion to Mallorca, we really wanted to see some different sites from our previous visit three years ago, where we skipped the southern and western shores. As we sailed offshore of Palma, and zig zagged around the many AIS targets on the screen, we rounded up the south coast to a harbor with the appealing name of Camp del Mar. I had grown up on the beaches of Del Mar, near San Diego, so I find myself with a certain affinity to any place with a similar name. Childhood memories are pretty persistent that way. While my Del Mar was a sleepy, hippy California beach town, this Del Mar was quite full of multi-story hotels and throngs of beachgoers. Californians love a beach, but I think it is fair to say that Spaniards are enthralled with the beach, and no more so than in the Balearics. They want their accommodations to be located just a step or two off the sand, and if that’s not possible, clinging to an adjacent cliff edge. We nosed in to an open area amongst 20 or more boats laying just out to sea from a yellow buoyed swim area. Spain is very intent on marking off areas from the beach that are for swimmers only, and hat’s off to them. There are too many crazies driving inflatables or jet skis at full throttle close to shore. It’s amazing there are not more accidents.

As soon as we were settled on anchor, we jumped in the water for a cool down from the intense heat of the day. We were so singularly focused on this wonderful replacement for an air-conditioned cabin, that we didn’t notice at first the appalling amount of trash in the water, mostly bits and pieces of plastic, but also jerry jugs, used covid masks, and other unmentionables. This detritus was slowly flowing out of the harbor, and we timed our swim for the in between time before the floating debris came back into the harbor in the late evening. Every country has their priorities and their personalities, but I will just say that this experience was in stark contrast to our witness of local Sardinians, at the windy Open Skiff championships, chasing after the ubiquitous empty plastic water bottle rolling into the water from the dock, clearly passionate about not populating their local waters. A young sailor even lost a short length of thin line off the dock next to our boat, and was fretting until we offered our boat hook for her to retrieve it. 

Chill time at Camp del Mar, Mallorca

We had ultimately come to this southwestern corner of Mallorca to visit the isolated and enticingly named island of Dragonera. However, a strong southerly wind made the few anchorages on the island, most with only room for one or two boats, impractical. We opted instead for the big town experience of Andratx. And speaking of interesting names, I couldn’t break my mind out of wanting to say ‘Anthrax’, but Karen was quick to point out the correct pronunciation of ‘Ann-DRAW-chh’. We were in need of some provisioning, which made this sizable town an attractive last stop before we departed Mallorca for Ibiza. Boats of all sizes and speeds were zooming by us as we got closer to the mooring field, once again reminding us that boating has not gone out of fashion here in Spanish waters. It wasn’t clear how all of these boats kept their fuel tanks re-provisioned either, as we approached the tiny fuel dock at Club de Vela and took our place in line. But their staff was very professional and directed us to an empty buoy in their mooring field, after some fiddling about whether we had a reservation. Reservations. That was a concept we were going to have to get more used to, as we moved west in the Med, closer to the metropolises and vacation meccas of the jet-setting Europeans. I can’t remember ever being asked in Greece if we had a reservation – at a marina, restaurant or elsewhere.

Steep cliffs and lighthouse as we turn into Andratx
Homes cascading down the cliffs as we enter Andratx

Equally out of context for us was the upscale nature of the village and patrons. We got away from the grocery store with still a few euros, but my interest in buying a new swim suit were soured by the first store’s price tag of 95 euros, and the second stores 119 euros. It made a lot more sense to separate myself from that amount of euros at a pleasing outdoor cafe than to put a high fashion bathing suit on a 50+ man. Best to leave that for the well-heeled 20-something Spanish male, too many of which seemed to catch the eye of my wife!

The Andratx harbor and dinghy dock

In a town like Andratx where there seemed to be more restaurant seating than tourists, it’s always a shot in the dark to find a venerable dinner experience. Everything looks and smells good. With our life on the water all of the time, we try to divert to a street or two off the waterfront, where generally the prices are better, but for sure the quality is a step up. And on this evening, we lucked out, as we indoctrinated ourselves into the local dining culture by ordering a seafood paella for two. To say it was a sensation is an understatement. It might have even rivaled the fine paella handiwork of our Spaniard friend Lisa, the master of anything involving the kitchen, but I may have been caught up in the moment. She was eager to hear the details and we shared what we could, despite the delirious effects of the day’s heat, and the evening’s libations!

After a stroll along the waterfront, it was time to hit the berth and get ready for a morning departure to Ibiza. With the forecast calling for a brisk southeast breeze, the potential existed for a lively sail across the 50nm expanse. It was certainly a good excuse to go down early and rest up. Although we were only in Mallorca for a few days, not nearly the three weeks we spent during our first year in the Med, it brought us great pleasure to be criss-crossing the azure waters of the Balearic Islands, in the comfort of the familiar, while marveling in the joy of the new. 

Lost in Translation, Ep. 159

As a group, sailors complain a lot about the wind. Either it is not enough, or it’s too much, or it’s come from the wrong direction. Karen and I are likely further jaded by the tempestuous weather of the Med, and the often repeated refrain, “There’s either no wind or too much of it!” But in reality I don’t think it’s a Med-specific phenomenon. When we sailed throughout New England with our young kids, there would be many summer days where we’d be searching for a breathe of wind. As a kid, with my Hobie cat off the beaches of San Diego, it wouldn’t take much to accelerate through the water, yet I spent many weekend days floating on a glassy sea. There’s nothing particularly wrong with this. Sometimes the gift the water can give to us is merely the peace and separation from our troubles ashore. But sometimes you have a destination in mind. And having a suitable wind speed and direction is a highly preferred companion to your solitude.

We knew our stay in the Egadi Islands of western Sicily was going to be cut short. The forecast would only allow us to stay one night. If we didn’t leave right after that, we’d have at least 2-3 days of headwinds to wait out before the crossing to Sardinia. The weather window was now and we had to strike while the iron was hot. The only wrinkle was the wind direction. While the forecast called for about 15 knots of wind, ideal in most situations, it was going to be coming from our stern. The adage, “Fair winds and following seas” is more of a carryover from the old square-rigger days, when the only winds these old ships were designed to handle was from nearly behind you. The modern rigged sailboat can take winds from astern, but is best suited for winds from the side (beam reaching) or close-hauled (at about 45 degrees to the wind). In truth, not many sailors like to go directly down wind. The boat moves slower, the inevitable waves generated by the winds easily push the boat off course, and the motion onboard is a double axis gyroscope of sorts, with the boat rocking from side to side, while also pitching forward and back. 

A farewell to the Egadi Islands as we head west to Sardinia
Continue reading “Lost in Translation, Ep. 159”

On the Run, Ep. 158

The surprise gift that was Malta had come to a close and it was time for us to head back to the big island of Sicily and continue our march westbound. Normally we sleep very well at a marina like Mgarr, on account of the few sources of worry, like dragging anchors and lumpy swells. But there had been a ‘technical problem’ with the ferry we had booked back from Valetta the night before. In the past, companies would just come out and say, hey, the engine won’t start, or the gangway won’t retract, but nowadays, with everyone appropriating the lingo of a high-tech world, it’s always just a ‘technical problem’. I think it makes it sound more like a complex NASA rocket launch being delayed because of a misbehaving sensor rather than the unglamorous nature of a recalcitrant carbon spewing diesel engine. In the end, we got back to Sea Rose and in our berth by about 1 am. I really liked Malta, but she wouldn’t let go of her grasp. Some might call her clingy!

We had about 70nm to cross to Sicily, to the harbor of Licata, which gave us a slight progress to the west as well. 

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Anything Worth Having Is Worth Fighting For, Ep. 157

This quote is loosely attributed to Oscar Wilde, and I believe to a few citizens over the centuries living on the island nation of Malta. The spirit of the phrase would mark our amazing visit to this geographically strategic spot in the middle of the Mediterranean. The price of admission was a long day of motoring south from Sicily, about 70nm, with occasional course changes to avoid the heavy east/west shipping traffic. Sometimes it felt like we were pedestrians trying to cross a busy Los Angeles freeway. At least the seas were flat and the engineers at Yanmar apparently well paid, on account of the reliable performance of our engine.

Sunrise departure from Sicily
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Crossing into Summer, Ep. 156

Karen and I knew when we planned this summer out that we would have several long crossings to do. With a goal of ending up in Northwest Spain by the end of the season, we would have to keep moving at a good clip and not spend as much time as prior summers ambling along the coastlines. That’s not to say that we wouldn’t stop to smell the roses. It is just that when the weather gods were in our favor, we’d have to pick up and go. Such was the case early in the morning at Argostoli, Kefalonia. We had set a departure of 0300, which would mean only one full overnight before arriving in Siracusa, Sicily the following evening, some 270nm away. As is usually the case, Karen drives us out of the harbor, and then I take over for the first watch while she goes down to catch up on sleep. I’m more of a morning person and actually enjoy these pre-dawn watches. And getting sleep whenever you can is really important on these long passages. If we are sleep-deprived at the helm, it puts both us and others in our path at risk.

The crossing from Greece, about 270nm
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Test, Test, Can You Hear Me OK?! Ep. 155

If I learned one thing from working in the software industry, it was the value gained from methodical, systematic processes. It’s relatively easy to picture in your head how a web page or predictive algorithm might work, but when writing the code and then communicating across a team diverse by location and language, any matter of alchemy could arise. It was easier when I was younger, writing my own code. But still, unexpected results or functionality came up, and it was no fun when a customer discovered it first. Any good developer has to have a healthy amount of humility. Mistakes happen, it’s a reality of software development, and, after all the fancy visioning sessions are complete and fingers start hitting the keyboard, it’s crucial to hunt down the gremlins and fix them promptly. In larger organizations, a full-fledged testing team, divorced from the developers, is called in to look at the product – people with no emotional attachment or pride of ownership. Clearly we are all heavily dependent on software in our daily lives. And it can be frustrating when a bug arises or functionality is missing. But a reality check is necessary. These products can contain literally millions of lines of code, and so to, at least that many points of failure. What seems small and benign when we stow our smartphone in our pocket, is in fact a vast array of complex algorithms that would blow the mind of an IBM researcher just a few decades ago with a campus full of state of the art mainframe computers. It’s not sexy, but following a strict regiment of review and testing has provided us with some of the sexiest of software tools, and I don’t just mean Tinder!

And so it was that we started our first week onboard Sea Rose – our shakedown week – checking all of the systems and fixing any issues. The list of systems included Karen and I, as any sailor will tell you that if you’ve been away from it for awhile, it takes some work to get your head back into the game. Our strategy for the week was to not go too far from our comfort zone and from access to chandleries for spare parts. That meant the safety of the Greek Ionian islands, where we had spent the last six weeks of previous season island hopping with our good friend Theo. Once we were confident everything was working OK, we would make our first big crossing of the summer, to Sicily. 

Continue reading “Test, Test, Can You Hear Me OK?! Ep. 155”