Walking the Plank

We fly the Corsican courtesy flag instead of the French one, even though Corsica is technically French. The island has a turbulent history, and many of the locals are fiercely independent.

Fraser’s blog brought you with us to Calvi, where we enjoyed being tourists for a few days, but finally the wind eased off enough to allow to head south again. This time, we were aiming for the capital city of Corsica, Ajaccio, a journey of just under 11 hours. We let go the mooring ball and motored into the sunrise, feeling more than a little anxious after our last experience.

Sunrise at sea. There were still some challenging waters to navigate before we reached calmer seas.

The first stretch was tricky as we once again faced headwinds of over 20 knots, but the forecast had promised us that it would ease as we headed further south, so we gritted our teeth and persevered. For once, the forecast was correct! The wind abated gradually over the first few hours until we only had 12-14 knots on the nose, and Barberry began to make better progress with the help of both engine and sails.

Not for the fainthearted. We gritted our teeth and kept going this time.

The views along the Corsican coast are truly spectacular and there were scores of other boats out there with us. For a couple who are used to the quiet waters of Ireland and Scotland, this felt like Spaghetti Junction as we tried to avoid being run into by everything from jet skis to super yachts. It’s a constant vigil, searching all around in every direction as some of these boats move incredibly fast and can be on top of you in a couple of minutes. They’re also not all visible on the AIS, especially the smaller ones.

Row upon row of mountain ranges disappearing into the blue.

The last headland we passed as we turned into the bay of Ajaccio was guarded by an archipelago called the Îles Sanguinaires, or Isles of Blood. This might suggest a bloodthirsty history, and Corsica has certainly experienced enough bloodshed through the centuries as bigger nations fought for control of this strategic location, but I suspect they’re probably named for their rich red colouration, especially as the sun sets, caused by the porphyry rocks that are scattered across them. Our track brought us through a narrow channel between the islets and the headland, passing over some scary shallow patches on the way.

The Îles Sanguinaires in the distance.

There are two marinas in Ajaccio, and we chose Port Tino Rossi, where we were able fill up with diesel and water after several days anchored then on a mooring. Showers were welcome, too, and the capitainerie was air conditioned, so we probably lingered there longer than we should have.

We passed several of these ruined towers. Not sure if they used to be windmills, or fortifications, or lighthouses.

I can’t say these Med moorings are getting any easier, but the stress levels are beginning to decrease a little. Barberry, being a long-keeled yacht, doesn’t like to go backwards. Or at least, she’ll go perfectly well backwards as long as you’re not fussy about direction. When reversing her into a tight space between two other (usually very expensive looking) boats, especially when there’s a crosswind, it can be a bit of a lottery.

Med mooring isn’t always easy when you have a long-keel yacht. This was in Nice, where the space was only just big enough for us.

A couple of years ago, we made the decision to fit a bow thruster (a small electric propellor sited under the water in the front of the boat that pushes the bow from side to side). This has been a game changer. Without it, I’d never have managed the tight manoeuvres needed, not without causing damage to other boats and to Barberry.

Barberry’s secret weapon, her bow thruster (red circle). Note that the other boat in the picture also has one (purple circle).

The nice thing about Mediterranean marinas is that staff come to meet you when you arrive, sometimes in a small workboat, sometimes on foot along the jetties. They show you where your space is and then catch lines for you. It’s very helpful, but adds to the stress, as things are far more likely to go wrong when you have an audience. So far, we’ve been lucky, but…

The lazy line (slime line) attached correctly to Barberry’s bow. It’s had time to dry out now, but it was black and slimy when Fraser first dragged it up from the deep. It acts like an anchor.

While I drive the boat, Fraser (and Patrick, when he’s with us) run about throwing lines to the marina staff, catching them as they’re thrown back, then tie them on to the boat. After that, they pick up the lazy line (AKA the slime line as it’s always slimy and often encrusted with mussels and barnacles that can cut the skin if gloves aren’t worn) and take it forward to the front of the boat to secure us to (usually) a heavy chain that runs along the seabed along the front of all the moored boats. After that, there’s a lot of shuffling forwards and backwards so all the lines are tight and there’s no risk of Barberry colliding with the pontoon if the wind increases.

Travelling by boat brings us to some wonderful places. Maybe one day we’ll come back to Corsica and spend a bit more time exploring this wonderful island.

We had a lovely meal in Ajaccio (pizza again) in a friendly, family run restaurant down a tiny side street that Fraser somehow found. The ambience was wonderful, and we were so glad to have escaped the wind tunnel that seemed to permanently sit over the top end of Corsica.

Pizzeria in Ajaccio, hidden down a side street.

Still, the weather forecast was pretty threatening for the next few days, and we wanted to get as far south as we could before the gales arrived again. Early the next morning, we slipped lines and left Ajaccio with a slight feeling of regret. We’d have liked to have had more time to explore, but maybe we’ll get back here again one day.

It stays hot even until late at night in Corsica. We all wear as few clothes as possible!

The weather has been hot. Maybe not as hot as some of the places mentioned on the news, but certainly upper 30s Celsius, and when you’re sailing you’ often don’t get the benefit of a cooling breeze as you’re exposed to the sun’s harsh rays all day, with little shelter. We took turns on the helm to try to reduce exposure (hats and sun protection aren’t enough) so one person would keep a watch while the other two stayed down in the cabin with the fans going. It was still hot down there, but at least it was shady.

Washday on the boat. If there’s no laundry where we’re staying (more often than not), we usually end ups hand washing essentials and hanging them out to dry all over the boat. It takes no time at all for things to dry in this heat, especially when it’s also windy.

Patrick was a great help. He has a young person’s facility with electronics so it took him no time to get to grips with our fancy chart plotter and the AIS, as well as the autopilot. He made a long journey much more pleasant. We were glad to make the final turn into the Bay de Figari, a long, narrow channel lined with rocks and shallows all the way down to the marina of Pianottoli-Caldarello. We were met by a couple of charming lads in a powerful workboat, all buffered up so it can be used as a tug to pull or push yachts into the space available. And they spoke perfect English!

A really big space this time! We’re a long way from the pontoon because we were afraid of the high winds blowing us onto to it, damaging the boat. In still weather, we’d often be close enough to just step across, like we were in Nice. Of course Patrick-longlegs just steps across this gap too, as if it’s nothing!

We managed again to somehow reverse into our space (but to be fair, it was a really big space this time, so failing would have been an embarrassment) and took some extra care with lines, as there were gales forecast for the next few days. What we hadn’t noticed, when we were researching places to shelter safely from the wind, was that this marina is in the middle of nowhere. There are no shops or restaurants anywhere nearby, and certainly no nightlife for Patrick, who was beginning to get withdrawal symptoms!

Patrick was up there for a long time in the blazing sun.

During the voyage, we’d somehow managed to get the topping lift line caught up in the mast track, right up at the top of the mast Attempts to free it from down below all only made it worse, so someone had to climb the mast and free it from up there. Cue Monkey-Boy. Patrick was up there like a spider, while Fraser belayed him from below. It wasn’t easy, but they finally managed to un-jam the errant line, and then it was time for iced tea!

He’s in a Bosun’s Chair, a bit like a climbing harness, and supported by a rope that Fraser has wrapped around a winch at the base of the mast. Still need nerves of steel to go up there though, especially in high winds.

When we checked in, the lovely lady in the capitainerie told us that a supermarket in the local town has an arrangement with the marina. They’ll send a car to the marina, take us to their supermarket to do our shopping, then they’ll drive us back with all our heavy bags. We tried it out, and it worked like a dream. We were able to fill our backpacks with heavy things like wine boxes and giant bottles of iced tea without having to lug them back on the bikes. Very civilised.

The tower that Patrick discovered along the bay. Maybe a lookout tower?

Patrick took off on foot the first evening to explore the area, and discovered an old tower on a headland with beautiful beaches either side of it. He and Fraser have disappeared off there on the two bikes a couple of times for a swim while I opted to stay behind and write this very blog. Nothing to do with the fact that it’s extremely hilly around here, of course!

A close-up of the tower. There was a lovely swimming beach right next to it.

The high winds arrived as predicted. We had doubled and trebled our mooring lines, and added rubber springs to a couple of them to prevent snatching. All around us, other boats were flocking into the sheltered bay and trying to moor in rising wind, but the rest of us turned out with goodwill to help them, along with the staff. The place was soon pretty full, and everyone was doing the same as us: running extra mooring lines and tightening everything up. That night, the gales arrived.

The spider’s web of lines and springs we use to keep Barberry safe throughout the gales. Also note the very thin gangplank we have to walk across every time we leave the boat. Patrick stays on board to raise the gangplank so it doesn’t bang as the boat moves, then he leaps across the gap.

It’s hard to describe the torrent of noise and movement when you’re trying to sleep in a small boat while the wind howls around you. It was still hot, but the boat was thrashing hard, being laid over sideways as much as if we were at sea in big waves. It’s difficult to move around safely, and even staying in your bed is a challenge. I don’t think any of us slept well that night.

Screenshot from the weather app we use, Windy. The red circle shows Calvi where we were storm bound for three days (brown on the app indicates high winds).The blue circle shows where we are now (pink-purple indicates very high winds). The green circle shows where we’re going next (blue-purple indicates exceptionally high winds).

A couple of times, Fraser got up to check the lines, and even added yet another line to the several already there. At around 0230, there was a terrible rending noise that brought all three of us wide awake. It sounded as if a cleat had been ripped out of the deck. Fraser checked, but there was no sign of damage anywhere, and we never did find out what the noise had been. The winds were pushing towards 50 knots through the night, but we stayed safe and sound

View from the top of the tower Photos very rarely show how windy it is…

Not so one of our neighbours. When we looked out of the window, we saw an expensive-looking RIB (rigid inflatable boat) floating around in the marina, unattached to the jetty. We called the capitainerie and a few minutes later, a very competent woman appeared in the workboat and tried to tow it back to its berth It turned out that the RIB was still attached by its slime line, so she undid that, then realised just how strong the wind was. Her little tin boat, even with its powerful 90HP engine, was no match for what was effectively a giant balloon on a string, and she was unable to get the thing turned across the wind.

With strong cross winds, it can be hard to keep control of your boat. This is our neighbour trying to leave this morning. He got blown sideways into us, but luckily our inflatable dinghy (“Dingleberry”) acted as a giant fender and kept Barberry safe. If you look closely, you can see the workboat acting as a tug, and pushing his bow across to help him get turned. Fraser is fending the boat off with a boat hook as well. That boat is a lot bigger than Barberry and might have squashed her like a fly!

Eventually, she managed to get it to safety and the panic was over We went back to eating our breakfast in the cockpit.

The wonderfully competent woman in her aluminium workboat.

Yesterday, Fraser was up on deck trimming his designer stubble (he gets a row if he scatters beard hair all over the inside of the boat) when we all heard a low flying airplane approaching. This isn’t that unusual here, as we’re only a couple of miles from Figari Airport, but this plane was so low that it barely skimmed the masts of all the boats in the marina. Patrick and I shot up to see what was going on, and this is what we saw:

A firefighting aircraft, coming in low over the boats to fill her tanks with seawater.

Then we turned around and looked the other direction:

Wildfires raging between us and the airport. We assume all the commercial flights were grounded, because none of them flew over us while the fires were still burning. It took a couple of hours to put even this quite small fire out.

This plane was joined by two others, and they looped around in a complex flying formation, each one scooping up water from our wee bay into its tanks, then circling around and dropping the water on the seat of the fire. It was an incredible sight, quite emotional, because we’d just read in the news about one of these planes crashing while firefighting in Greece, and killing its crew. These pilots are incredibly skilled, and very brave. The bay is narrow, shallow in places, has outcrops of rocks reaching out across it, and was littered with kite surfers, windsurfers, a few surprised seagulls and one yacht, trying to get to the marina. He had to dart off to the side of the channel when he saw the planes flying along on the surface, scooping up water. I expect he needed to change his trousers afterwards. I would have, if it had been me.

This is the bay from the marina, showing (look closely) rocky outcrops on both sides.

Patrick has been a great crew member , and we’ve enjoyed having him with us for this last couple of weeks, but he has a job and a life back in Northern Ireland, and decided he’d had enough for now of being stormbound in various remote places. We booked him on a flight from the Aéroport de Figari Sud, which turns out to be only a couple of miles from the marina, so he could get home via London. We’re really going to miss him. We’re hoping he might come back to join us again once we reach Greece.

Patrick, AKA Monkey Boy, will be sorely missed.

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