Life on the Lean

Dozens of huge grey mullet swarmed around the boat while we were in Arbatax.

Fraser’s blog left us in Arbatax, Sardinia, bracing ourselves for the long crossing to Sicily. We set our alarms for 0530, ready for an 0600 start so we’d hopefully arrive in daylight the next day. The crossing was a total of 180nm and we travel at anything from 4-7 nautical miles an hour (knots), usually averaging about 5 kn. That meant we were likely to reach the closest bit of Sicily in around 35 hours, depending on wind direction and strength.

Sailing into the sunrise. Sicily is somewhere over the horizon, 180nm ahead of us. Note ferry on the right.

Leaving the marina is easy enough as we’re already facing out and just have to untie the lines and go. However, we then have to bring in all the fenders (big, fat, inflatable sausages that protect the boat from neighbouring boats) and tie them to the back of the boat so they don’t catch on sheets when we’re sailing, and we had to bring the dinghy around from the front of the boat, where she floats in marinas, and hoist her up into her davits out if the water. We could tow her, but Barberry is slow enough without adding a drag on her as well, and it’s less wear and tear on the dinghy to be carried on the davits. See further down the page for another reason towing isn’t always a good idea!

The warm rays of dawn picked out the red rocks that Arbatax is famous for.

All this takes time, and even at 0600 it was hot enough that Fraser was sweating as he carried heavy fenders to and fro’. There was a huge ferry in the harbour, but I was too busy helping hoist the dinghy to keep a close eye on it. It took me a while to notice that it was no longer tied up but was starting to move, taking up the entire width of the harbour mouth that we were heading towards. Quick change of course, and I dropped in behind her, struggling to control Barberry as the giant whirlpools from her propellors swirled us about. We finally fought clear, and watched her steam off towards the horizon, a trail of smoke from her funnel bruising the clear morning sky.

From sunrise to sunset. This was our view from the cockpit as we sailed into the night.

The sea was flat calm, and our spirits lifted. We’d been dreading this crossing, because we don’t have the stamina we used to have when we were younger, and we were both still feeling quite jaded after our battle against headwinds to Arbatax a couple of days before.

Our dinghy, Dingleberry, swinging on her davits. Night watches sound lonely, but you’re usually far too busy to notice or get bored.

We started as we meant to go on, with one hour watches during the daylight and a plan for 4.5 hour watches overnight. Fraser hoisted both our sails and we set the course for San Vito Lo Capo and a tiny anchorage that should, on paper, give us shelter from wind and waves. On Fraser’s watch he spotted dolphins who stayed with the boat for a short while before heading off, and later on he saw a sea turtle swimming past.

Apologies for the blurry photo (phone camera was in night mode but I couldn’t keep it still enough with the boat moving). The moon rose so red that I panicked and thought I was seeing the navigation lights of something huge churning towards me over the horizon. The mind can really play tricks on you at night!

The reasoning behind our watch schedule is that we have no real shade in our cockpit, unlike most bigger yachts that have a bimini (sort of tent without walls) to protect the crew from the sun. We have found that an hour is the maximum we can manage, even with long sleeve shirts, floppy hats, sunglasses and factor 50+ kid’s suntan protection before we start feeling ill effects (heatstroke). We drink litres of water each, too, and keep it chilled in the fridge, but it’s still unbearably hot outside.

A full moon gave so much light that it might as well have been daylight, except cooler.

Whoever is off-watch has a wee lie down in the cabin with at least one fan on. Sometimes you take a nap, sometimes read a book, or mostly follow the route on the phone app to keep track of where we are and how fast we’re going.

Spectacular views along the Sicilian coastline.

Once the sun starts to go down (around 2100), the air cools and we can stand longer watches. There’s roughly 9 hours of darkness at this time of year, so we split it in two and take half each. I usually take the first watch (2100-0130) and Fraser takes the second watch (0130-0600). I sail into darkness, he sails into light. This means whoever is off-watch can probably get a good 4 hours sleep, whereas shorter watch spells mean it’s harder to switch the brain off and stop listening for changes in sails or engine sounds.

Dingleberry inhibits our view backwards as she hangs in her davits, but she also provides a bit of protection from the wind and a solid place to lean when you’re standing up to look all around for approaching vessels/hazards.

The crossing to Sicily went as smoothly as we could have wished, but it was exhausting. There’s little in the way of tides in the Med, which makes life far easier, but there are currents that swirl around and if you hit an adverse current, it can slow you down considerably.

Very happy to be approaching our anchorage after such a long passage.

With all sails set and a stiff wind from the side of the boat, we were creaming along. Sailing like this means that the boat is always heeling over, or leaning heavily over to one side. This makes moving about challenging, both in the cockpit and down in the cabin. Going to the toilet on passage is a whole new life skill that has to be learned! There are strict rules for males that however accurate they THINK they are, only sitting down is allowed. Even a simple task like making a sandwich or filling the water bottles has to be thought through beforehand. You have to brace yourself with a wide stance, trying to wedge your hip against something solid for balance as you work.

Traditional Sicilian fishing boat.

In the end, we managed to knock a couple of hours off our expected time of arrival and finally dropped the anchor at around 2.30pm on Thursday 3rd August, four months and one day after leaving Bangor.

Squidward before he disintegrated.

As the blue, shadowy mountains of Sicily emerged from the sun haze, Fraser discovered we had a stowaway on the side deck: a sad little squid that must have either leapt out of the water or been washed on board by a wave. He tried to throw it back in, but it disintegrated as soon as he touched it. Yuck!

Fraser’s face when he realised Squidward had disintegrated and needed scraping up off the side deck.

The first thing we do when in a new anchorage is dive into the water with snorkels and masks to check the anchor. This is a useful exercise, because the anchor and chain are the only things stopping you from drifting out to sea if the wind gets up, or worse still, drifting ashore or into another boat! It’s hardly a chore here, though. The water is crystal clear, swarming with fish, and really warm. We usually stay in until we’re wrinkly.

Another country, another courtesy flag. We don’t have a Sicilian flag, so the Italian one went up instead.

We didn’t go ashore at that anchorage, unless you count snorkelling along the breakwater and looking for octopi in the crevices between rocks. Haven’t found any yet, but I’m sure they’re there, watching us from the shadows with their little beady eyes. Many sea urchins, shoals of beautiful fish, sea cucumbers (or sea slugs? Not sure). Occasional jellyfish, which we give a wide berth after my experience in Corsica.

Nice, fresh Italian flag in contrast to our tired-looking Irish flag and the Cruising Association burgee.

The weather app was forecasting very high winds, and that anchorage wasn’t especially sheltered. In fact, we had a bit of a rough night because it was so rolly with a constant swell coming in around the headland. We tried to book a spot in one of the many marinas around the north coast of Sicily, but this being August, there was no space anywhere. So we researched wind directions and decided to head for a supposedly sheltered bay a few miles north of the capital city of Palermo.

Our rolly anchorage for the night, just outside the harbour breakwater. Magnificent Monte Monaco watched over us. If you look closely, you can see traces of burning from wildfires that gave the mountain a fiery crown a few weeks ago.

We lifted the anchor early and set off for the short hop (relatively speaking) of 6 hours, and had a good sail with the engine assisting us as there wasn’t enough wind to just sail. This wide bay is surrounded by jagged, volcanic mountains which should, in theory, provide good protection from the wind. We nosed our way in between the scores of anchored boats and the fast RIBs that were flying around and dropped the anchor on a lovely patch of sand in about 3-4m of water. Because Barberry is so shallow, we can creep inshore where the bigger yachts daren’t follow, which can be an advantage.

Monte Monaco on fire barely a week before we were there. Photo credit “Ernest” c/o the Navily app.

In this case, it was a huge advantage. When you anchor, it’s not just the actual anchor that holds you in place but also the length of anchor chain that you let out. The idea is that you let out enough chain that it lies along the seabed and doesn’t lift as the wind gusts, tugging at the boat attached to the other end. As a general rule, we were taught that 4:1 or 5:1 scope is the best to reply, so for our 4m depth it meant laying out roughly 20m of chain. We dived to check, and found the anchor well bedded in and the chain lying beautifully straight along the seabed.

Just a passing submarine. Nothing to write home about! This seems to be a glass-bottomed craft that takes tourists on an underwater tour of the bay.

After that swim (loads of fish, no jellies. Yay!), we dried off and took the dinghy into the nearby harbour to buy some food supplies. You might remember Fraser mentioning how poorly stocked the one shop in Arbatax had been? We were running seriously low on essentials. We parked the dinghy on a concrete ramp and tied it to a chain (unusual to have such easy dinghy parking arrangements) and headed off to the shop with our empty backpacks. We may have been slightly distracted by the Gelateria we passed (delicious Italian ice cream, just what we needed to cool down), but we soon found the shop.

Lip smackingly good gelato.

This time we managed to buy some good fresh salads, bread, fruit juice, fruit, etc to restock the fridge. And the shop was air conditioned, so we weren’t in a hurry to leave! The dinghy ride back was a bit rougher than on the way in as the wind was already beginning to get up, but we made it safely back to the plunging boat and somehow got the two of us and our groceries onboard without anyone going for an unscheduled swim.

Barberry at anchor in the Baie di Mondello.

Fraser took another look at the anchor and decided to let out a bit more chain as the wind was due to blow hard during the night. By evening, most of the other boats had left and there was only us and maybe three more idiots anchored in the bay. That meant there was plenty of room for Barberry to swing around in circles around her anchor, so the extra scope of chain wouldn’t cause anyone any concern.

The beautiful harbour, too shallow for even Barberry but perfect for the dinghy while we did our shopping.

The wind came early, and it came like a screaming banshee, flattening the sea and sending spumes of foam racing out across the bay. Thunder, lightning and torrential rain lashed the boat. How could this be the same, placid Mediterranean that we’d been snorkelling in a few hours before?

And we really do love Mondello, but we’d love it more if there was a little less wind!

We had the anchor alarm set, and we knew it would wake us if the anchor started to drag, but it proved impossible to sleep, despite us both being exhausted after three nights in a row of little sleep. We had by now more than 30m of anchor chain out, but the wind kept on changing direction, sending Barberry from one end of her full reach to the other. The gusts laid her over on her side, and we were thrown about in our berth. We were both glued to our phones all night, studying the anchor watch app to see if the anchor might be dragging.

As you can see from the different coloured lines (representing different time periods), Barberry has been executing some nifty dance moves over the last 24 hours!

Daylight came at last, and the wind was still howling. We surfaced and checked everything was still okay. It was. Our very out-of-date CQR anchor had held and when Fraser swam to check it, it hadn’t moved at all except to dig itself in a little deeper under the sand. There were even stronger winds still forecast, so we let out another 10m of chain, giving us a scope of 10:1, more than we’ve ever used before. This was where we were grateful for Barberry’s shallow draught, allowing us to anchor in such shallow water. Chatting online with another boat in the anchorage, it turns out they’re anchored in 10m of water so they must have a lot of chain out, more than our 40m.

Mondello looked so benign — until the gales arrived!

Partway through the morning, Fraser stuck his head outside and said, in a calm voice, “The dinghy’s overturned.”

When you live on a boat, a dinghy is the equivalent of the family car. Without it, we can’t get ashore from anchorages or moorings, and that means we can’t get supplies or walk on dry land for a break from the constant motion of the boat. Here, Fraser pulls Dingleberry ashore so we can go shopping in Mondello.

I should point out that the dinghy is very heavy duty and weighs a ton (at least that’s how it seems as we hoist it up onto its davits). It also still had the outboard engine on it from the previous day’s shopping trip. A 2-stroke petrol engine with spark plug and carbeurettor that doesn’t play well with salt water. For the wind to flip it over must have taken an enormous amount of force. We didn’t take pictures of the overturned dinghy because we were too busy trying to catch hold of it with boat hooks in order to right it again. It took all our strength and ingenuity to flip it back over, and my arms felt like cooked spaghetti afterwards.

Will it ever work again?

Fraser managed to get the outboard off the dinghy and onto its usual storage place on the railings in the cockpit, then we hoisted the dinghy onto the davits to keep it safe. After a bit of panicky googling, Fraser took off the casing and poured some of our precious fresh water over it then let it air dry before spraying everything with WD40. After a suitable time period, he tried starting it and it amazed us both by firing up! That little Mariner engine is 25 years old, but it’s as tough as old boots. Of course there was no guarantee it’d still work when we really needed it next time, but if it’s a lump of solid rust by then, maybe that will give me an excuse to treat us to a new electric outboard instead!

It worked! Phew!

We’ve spent a couple of nights here now, and the wind still hasn’t abated. It isn’t due to die down for at least another day, so that’s two more sleepless nights, worrying about the anchor and getting tossed around in our bed in the bow of the boat. We did manage to make it ashore today during a slight lull for a few more provisions, and to fill a couple of canisters with water from a tap on the harbour. We even dared stop for lunch (pizza, what else in Sicily?) in a lovely seafront restaurant, but we kept one eye on the sea and when the white water started building up again in the bay, we headed back.

Ominous clouds building up over Mondello.

As we approached Barberry, the wind was really beginning to build up again and she was bouncing around like one of those rodeo bulls (the ones that give you groin strain, Fraser says!). She was also swinging around as the wind swirled her, and we had to chase her down in the dinghy, praying that the outboard motor wouldn’t let us down. Finally Fraser got us within grabbing range and I managed to pass a line around her swim ladder, but it was still a serious challenge to climb aboard. As Barberry’s stern rose on a wave, Dingleberry dropped and vice-versa, so it was hard to judge when to leap for the ladder.

So many of these towers along the coasts of Sardinia and Sicily.

Anchoring is wonderful, and we prefer it to marinas, but we only have the food, water, and diesel that we can carry so we have to be frugal with supplies, especially water. We wash ourselves with buckets of sea water and only allow ourselves a tiny rinse in freshwater. When you’ve lugged 20 litre canisters from the shore in a dinghy and then manhandled them onto the boat with winds of 30kn, you really begin to appreciate the simple basic of life on land that you used to take for granted!

This is the first time we’ve experienced beaches that you have to pay to get onto! Not sure how they’d prevent us from swimming ashore from the anchorage though, although it’s a long way to swim. Barberry is just a speck in the distance in this photo.

Despite our love of anchoring, we’d had enough of bouncing around and carrying water canisters, so we booked ourselves into the most expensive marina we’ve ever seen for one night to top up water tanks, recharge electronics, and buy in some urgent supplies. I’ll leave Fraser to tell you about that!

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