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.
We had been waiting for a forecast different than the headwinds that had been blowing for the last week, and today we were expecting to get a moderate northerly breeze, perfect for our westbound course. After daybreak, little zephyrs started forming on the water, and soon enough, we had a breeze that was workable. We raised the code 0 for the first time this summer, and sheeted it in tight for a close reaching angle, bringing us a respectable 5-6 knots of boat speed. But, alas, the winds can be fickle in the Mediterranean in the summer. It built to 15 knots for a brief period and then slowly died off, to point that we needed to start motoring if we wanted to arrive before nightfall the next day. The curse of all the navigation gear we had onboard was the realtime updating of our ETA in Syracusa. At 15 knots of wind and boat speeds in the 7’s, we were happily arriving in the mid-afternoon. When the wind eased, and our speed dropped to the 3’s, we were arriving after midnight. While I might have been inclined in the past to poke along at 3 knots, the prospective of losing half of last night’s sleep, only to have to spend two more nights underway, was less that motivating. So we reached for the ignition switch again and our trusty engine came back to life.
I was beat at the end of my 3 hour watch, with my head nodding off uncontrollably. I was so happy to see Karen rise up in the companionway to take over. I was in the bunk and asleep in an instant. One of the benefits of overnight crossings is the option to sleep whenever you are off watch, guilt free. You wouldn’t see me taking a daytime nap at home without a good measure of guilty pleasure. But here, it was a judgment free zone. In fact, we encouraged each other to go down after each watch, with the only downside that you don’t see much of your spouse!
The engine droned on as we started crossing the popular shipping lanes between Greece and the Messina Straits. Thankfully, the traffic shows up clearly on AIS long before we can see them with our own eyes.
In the mid-afternoon, we were greeted with a rambunctious pod of dolphins, leaping for joy as they honed in on our position. It was a brief moment of entertainment, and then they were gone just as quick, like a mariachi band hesitating for a tip at your table, and moving promptly on if nothing is offered.
Dusk was upon us before long, and Karen took the first watch from 8-11pm, after we had a simple, no cook dinner, with our new favorite dessert of sheep yogurt, sliced peaches, walnuts and a drizzle of honey. Yumm!
With three hour watches, there’s no real favorable slot. With Karen on watch from 8-11pm, it was early for me to go to bed, and sleep was fleeting. For Karen, going off watch at 11pm, it’s easier to feel tired and fall asleep quickly, but then you have the dreaded wakeup call at 2am, just about the worst time to get your brain in gear. Anyway you cut it, it’s an assault on the body’s natural rhythm.
By the next morning, still under engine power, it was becoming clear that we needed to average 6.5 knots to get in before nightfall. With virtually no wind, this was ruling out any type of sailing. So, we took joy in simple pleasures. Like a bird that landed on our lifeline, out in the middle of this Ionian Sea, trying to get some rest and hitch a free ride. At first I thought it was a pigeon, but Karen suggested a dove. Any bird experts out there?
There was a brief moment of building wind which allowed us to roll out the Code 0 again and shut the noisy engine down, but it too was fleeting, and we were back motoring 15 minutes later.
For the last week, the skies had been exceptionally hazy, and we were having a very fine layer of sand appear on the deck even though the wind was light and no rain fell. We assumed it was sand from the Sahara, blowing up into the Med, and causing the haziness in the sky. It was warm and dry, but without the typical deep blue sky of the Med. The gray skies made us feel like a storm was brewing.
What would normally be an easy coastline to find, with the prominent Mt Etna taking the eye’s attention to the north, turned out to be difficult, with a faint outline just starting to appear when we were 10nm out. With Siracusa being our first Italian port of call, we made sure to follow all of the covid and navigational rules, with a call first to the Siracusa harbor master on the VHF. We had heard that they require a call on the radio before entering, even though the harbor is extremely spacious. They gave us a specific lat/lon to anchor at, and emailed us a health form to be returned to some eight government email addresses. We would have to wait until one of the recipients gave us approval to go ashore.
We had heard from other boaters that it could take up to 3 hours to be given the all clear, but we were arriving on a Saturday evening, and could easily wait until the morning to land the dinghy. In reality, we had to wait 42 hours! And only after I found the harbor master’s phone number and kept calling to ask for a status did they finally get one of the departments to approve us. Needless to say, both Karen and I were starting to get stir crazy, looking out on a beautiful historic city, with aromas and music wafting over to us, but remaining out of reach. I got so desperate that I happily took on the job of replacing the ‘joker’ valve in our forward head, one of my least favorite places to work!
By the third evening, we committed to each other that we would go ashore whether or not we heard back from the agencies, as one can only put off for so long the prospect of fresh pizza out of an Italian wood-burning oven. It was a good thing our approval email came in time!
Siracusa has an expansive waterfront promenade, with ample room for lovers to slowly stroll, looking into each other’s eyes and not worrying about bikers or toddlers on their first outing on their wayward push scooters. Even better, the town let you tie up at the quay here for free for five days, which gave us walk-off-the-boat ease of seeing the city’s highlights. Here at the quay, we were on the island of Ortigia, the location of the old city of Siracusa, full of narrow alleyways crammed full of cafe seating, plus grand piazzas that would fit in quick nicely in a prominent Italian film. We would miss Greece, but felt excited and vibrant to be back in Italy. Women of all ages were dressed on this Monday night like it was an impressionable first date, while their male partners ran the gamut of cut-off tee shirts to preppy Izod shirts with the collar flipped up. If I come back in a future life as an Italian fashionista, just don’t make me wear high heels on centuries-old craggy stone walkways. I don’t know how Italian women do it!
Siracusa had plenty of practical necessities hidden in its narrow streets too. We happily crossed off a large list of items, including laundry, boat parts (when does it stop?!), and SIM cards. Siracusa has a daily street market, with sufficient fresh fruits and vegetables that we were tempted to come back each morning. Ahh, what a way to live for these fortunate Sicilians… to walk out in the morning and buy just what you need for a fresh, healthy day of meals.
The old city of Ortigia was once separated from the mainland, giving the early inhabitants additional safety, until a few low slung bridges were built across the canal. Out on the tip of Ortigia, there were the remains of Castello Maniace guarding the harbor entrance, which was in turn separated from Ortigia by a large moat. It wasn’t until our last day at the town quay that we decided to tour the Castello, on one of the hottest days we’ve ever had in Europe, a heat wave that I realize won’t garner us much sympathy as the rest of the world roasts in their own oppressive heat. It was the first time I can recall feeling so hot I might faint. Luckily we found a quiet, shaded cafe overlooking the harbor for a cool beverage. All the locals were on siesta. It was just us tourists, trying to see as much as we can, that were pushing the limits of body and soul!
The heat was forecasted to continue for the near future, and with the harbor too dirty to swim in and our task list dwindling, it was time for us to move on from the city scene and find a clear water anchorage. We slipped lines from the town quay, coaxing an anchor to the surface that had been deeply buried in the harbor’s sticky mud, and started heading south along the east coast of Sicily. Ultimately, we would be starting our next crossing to Malta, but first, we needed a peaceful cove. We found it a few hours later, a horseshoe shaped spot called Fontane Bianche, ringed with low-profile beach resorts and a plethora of umbrellas. Most importantly, a steady breeze was blowing across the anchorage, making the heat more amenable. I quickly volunteered to swim out to do the anchor check; it felt marvelous to be back in the water again. A distant thump-thump sound emanated from one of the resorts, but no amount of Euro techno beat was going to spoil this heavenly spot. It didn’t take us long to hop in the dinghy and find a spot to snorkel.
We hadn’t exactly realized the stress of our first crossing to Sicily, the finishing of boat projects, the uncertainty of clearing into Italy, and the other obligations needed to get back on the water with Sea Rose. It was at Fontane Bianche, as we nibbled on our lunch of fruit, cheese, bread and tomato salad that we felt summer was really starting. As I took an evening swim around the boat, and Karen stretched out on the foredeck, we reveled in the stars coming alive in the clear night sky. As always, we had a summer of new destinations and plenty of uncertainty ahead. There would be ups and downs for sure. But we were being held in the warm embrace of Mother Nature on this star-studded night, protected and secure.