Atlantic 1: Cape Verde

Day 1: Wednesday 6th December

With the three horn blasts of the Tui cruiser, we abandon the calibration of the wind vane in the harbour and hotfoot it out into the Atlantic pursued by a reversing cruise ship. An inauspicious departure heralded by the skipper blowing Pantelisa’s wheezing plastic horn.

The sun was advancing ahead of us into the west and Arrecife was retreating behind, the ocean expanding its vastness ahead and astern. To the starboard were the lights of Lanzarote and then, further south, Fuerteventura. Close enough for comfort and data signal well into the next morning.

This was it. ‘Atlantic Crossing’ had been half-heartedly on my bucket list for more than 10 years. I never really thought it would become a reality, and to be honest, it was just something drummed up while chewing the end of a pencil, trying to think of worthy endeavours to fill the void of a broken marriage. So here it was. List item becoming reality once again, as Glee had become less than two years before.

Day 2: Thursday 7th December

The wind had increased to 25 knots making for a steep and confused sea with waves coming from all directions. The waves and wind conspired to turn Pantelisa into the wind and rattle the sails and rigging. We reduced sail by reefing the main and increased a little in the Genoa to balance a little better, which it does but still not perfect.

Our spell ashore has reset Herbert’s seasickness tolerance back to zero and he waits for the effect of the medication to kick in. Other than taking time and rest, there is not much he can do about it.

The autopilot can’t cope with its two adversaries, the waves and the wind. It puts us into a gybe and the wind backing around the mainsail issues a violent bang as the boom is restrained by the preventer line and the sail suddenly bulges in the opposite direction. Human intervention is required. We can at least see the approach of the waves from astern and start the recovery turn before the wave arrives. It takes constant concentration and physical effort.

We goose wing the sails and run more with the wind. The autopilot doesn’t get it and wants to gybe and head into the wind. We are now rolling from side to side more now the wind is no longer holding us over. Our mast is like the inverted pendulum of a metronome and the movement a challenge to Herbert’s seasickness.

The autopilot situation is untenable. It takes great effort as a trio to keep Pantelisa on course. Herbert is learning fast on the helm but is prone to overcompensate when steering to the compass, so duties fall on me and Thomas until we divine the secret of Pantelisa’s balance in the wind. We reef the Genoa and tighten it hard so it is less prone to flapping when the wind takes us. Other than that there is little improvement. Day 2 into a 21-day voyage. It feels like we have set off on a marathon at a sprint and I wonder how far we can get before fatigue wipes us out and we have to heave to or sail off course at an angle to the wind in order to get some sleep.

Thomas searches the settings on the Raymarine autopilot and in desperation, presses the ‘Reset to Factory Settings’ option. It’s better, much better. Only we’ve lost the sensitivity option where we can define how hard or easy the autopilot works so we can save power. Changing course slightly to put the gybing point further out of reach, we do not yet trust the autopilot and take it in turns to eat while one of us stays on the helm.
The waves are relentless and take Herbert by surprise knocking his dinner off the table into the seat. Another wave pushes into a gybe as the autopilot attempts to respond in time.

An awful night of hand steering for four hours. It could only have been worse if it was raining. That was the only positive I could take from the experience. I did not Gybe but was spun windward a few times by the steep waves that seemed to arrive in teams of between 3 and 7. This sea state was beyond Herbert’s current skill level at compass based helming and Thomas took his shift.

Day 3: Friday 8th December

I emerged from my cabin at 08:00, after a three-hour sleep, to relieve Thomas of his double shift. Thomas had an idea: drop the mainsail and leave the Genoa up. It made sense to me on a logical level but Thomas was hesitant since Jimmy Cornell, founder of the “Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC)” had advised never to sail without the main so you could sail in any direction in an emergency. We were desperate so…

We had to head into the wind to bring the sail down and the sea and wind were particularly hostile as our speed in the water minus wind speed changed to speed through the water plus wind speed as we changed course.

The banging of the bow into the waves and the water coming over the deck brought Herbert out of his cabin to see what was happening, just in time to help with the halyard. Thomas was wrapped around the swinging mast in the sea spray pulling down the sail and I went out to help him tie it down to the boom. Returning to the shelter of the cockpit made the mission feel like we had been out on a spacewalk out of the space shuttle.

Resuming course with a reefed Genoa and no mainsail, the transformation was astounding. Pantelisa was now perfectly balanced and now had stability: easy to steer, even in the steepest waves. Even the autopilot was happy and resumed its competence. Plus we were still making 7 knots speed.

The night watch was far more relaxing this time. I steered for three hours and allowed the autopilot an hour while I could sit back and enjoy the moonlight over the heaving black mountain range of the Atlantic.

Day 4: Saturday 9th December

I emerged from my cabin into a granite grey sky, over an industrial slate grey sea. The milky white sun strained through the cloud around noon but gave up its pitiful struggle soon after. Steering was easy but tedious after about an hour. Nothing to fix a sight on to use as a bearing, no boat traffic, only numbers on a compass swinging to and fro with the game to keep the needle on 240.

I envisioned a sumptuous dinner of Egg, chips, beans and mushrooms. Something different from the sauce based pasta and rice that conveniently was served in pans and bowls. That was the plan I was looking forward to. It was a disaster, the gas could not heat the oil enough for fries and the potatoes melted into an oily mash that stuck to the bottom of the pan. Egg, mushrooms, beans and pasta in a bowl wasn’t quite what I had in mind but we were famished and wolfed it down. The only food we left was the oily mash stuck to the pan.

I was feeling the fatigue as the alarm woke me for my midnight shift and I stumbled out of my cabin dragging my deep sleep with me. It was hard to keep balance as I stepped into the cockpit and I was on the back foot when it came to getting up to speed with the current status. Our course was 247 and the Genoa was reefed to the first marker and as tight as a drum. “Safer in the prospects of a gybe.”

Thomas said I could let some more sail out if the wind eased. Unlikely, I thought as the wind whistled past my ears and I could see our speed over ground indicator nudging 8 knots. I steered for maybe twenty minutes before making tea and grabbing some biscuits. The wind wasn’t cold but I felt it, and folded a blanket around me. I let the autopilot steer the rest of my shift.

Day 5 Sunday 10th December

Waking with heavy eyes in the light of day, I could feel the fatigue maintaining its grip, due to the constant movement of the animated sea. The floor of my cabin covered with clothes and things that flung themselves off cupboards during the night. The swish of my washbag on the top of my locker as it slid back and forth to the rhythm of the Atlantic swell kept me hovering on the border of sleeplessness.

Where is the phone? There it is over the other side of the bed sliding back toward me as the port side takes another heaving swell from the east.
My heavy eyes read for a short while, losing half the words they send to my tired brain.

I postpone venturing out on deck, trying to reclaim some energy from lack of sleep. It doesn’t work: a mental form of seasickness where it is not the body reacting but consciousness itself.

I start my computer to catch up on the rough drafts of blog posts hastily scribbled on paper. 77% the Lenovo battery icon tells me. Maybe an hour to craft an approximation of elegant writing – it will be rough but at least it will BE. It will exist.

Electricity is at a premium, we can’t just plug in when we want. The solar panels turned away from the sun by the angle of the wind starve our batteries of charge while the oscillating autopilot sucks away at the voltage.

Phone at 72% fares better in airplane mode and used almost entirely for telling the time and sounding an alarm for the start of the night watch… If it were not for the phone, I would not know what day it is. One day leads seamlessly into another, light and dark undefined by sleep cycles.

The 5th day. It could be the 10th. Land is a distant memory in such a short space of time. It’s gone noon when I emerge from my cabin into the cockpit. Thomas and Herbert are already there. I apologise for being late, not that there is any obligation or time frame other than the night watches we set our selves. The sun is bright and the wind and waves have eased. Perfect sailing and we are still at about 6 knots speed.

By late afternoon I feel more energised. Partly because of writing earlier gave me a sense of accomplishment and partly by just relaxing in the sun in calmer weather expended less energy in order to remain upright. At 5 pm Thomas suggested I take more rest and that made a big difference. I slept well for a couple of hours and woke for dinner before returning to bed again at 21:00.

The forecast predicts strong wind from the east north of Cape Verde. We could save miles and time by turning west early as long as the winds do not lead us into a calm. We turn west. We wouldn’t be visiting Cape Verde…

Herbert

November 29

Motoring under the pedestrian drawbridge out of Marina Lagos saw us on our way to Lanzarote. We had lost Jan to seasickness and abandoned him in the marina so we were a trio once again. Out in the ocean, the swell was larger and more spread out than on the way by Tarifa and Herbert started feeling the effects and went below for relief.

It had only been a day since he’d started his seasickness tablets so I was optimistic he would be OK. The best thing he could do was take care of himself in the meantime rather than try and push through and prolong the discomfort. Thomas and I had everything in hand but, as a duo, it could get tiring if Herbert was still laid out for an extended period.

The sails were goose winged again and we were rolling around but making good speed.

The next day, Herbert was feeling better and was even functional below decks: the acid test for seasickness when you lose sight of the horizon and by the third day, he was as fine as Thomas and me. Totally cured. He had his sea legs and recovered as a fully participating member of the crew.

Every day we were blessed with good weather with the swell easing too and our speed held fast. Once again, the days were merging into each other one sunny day after another bracketed by dry moonlit nights. The decision to go to the Canaries via Lagos was genius. The route looks a little crazy on the map until you overlay the weather front coming in the opposite direction. Anna had told me there was heavy rain and thunder in Gibraltar on the day of our departure. Consequently, we got the very best of the sailing weather, making good time all the way.

3 Dec

Night fell and the moon rose, full and fat. Tomorrow was supposed to be a supermoon but it appeared to have come early for Pantelisa on the Atlantic. The wind died away during the night, just for a few minutes. I hated it, not because of the lack of speed, but because the waves would rock Pantelisa about from side to side and the empty sails would flog banging the boom at the limits of the mainsheet and preventer line in the silent darkness.

4 Dec

I came out on watch at midnight, I could see the lights on the north shore of Lanzarote. An unlit rock was noticed on Navionics on the phone but wasn’t marked on our Raymarine plotter, we had long past the range of the downloaded plotter maps for Turkey and Greece. Against the indigo sky, a black silhouette to the port bow toward the horizon, easily visible in the full moonlight. Thomas marked a waypoint to the rock’s position and emphasised to avoid it, “Do not steer to that waypoint.” Tell that to the wind.

Instructions were to keep west but the wind was veering more directly astern to push us on a more easterly track as I steered to protect the mainsail from a gybe. The line on the plotter that indicated the course we were heading was swinging about like a windscreen wiper, catching the rock in its sweep. Odds were that we would avoid the rock by a couple of miles as long as the wind didn’t veer further westward with its spontaneous gusts but there’s no guarantee what the wind would do. If it did, we may have had to adjust course and to pass to the eastern side instead and gybe for the westerly track.

We arrived in Arrecife at 8am, entering the harbour under sail before firing up the motor and hauling down the main. Marina Lanzarote is a beautiful Marina serviced by Cafes on the Marina promenade and Tapas bars around the old fishing harbour. It was warmer here than Gibraltar too. I set about cleaning the boat while Thomas organised the sail and wind vane repairs. there was good news on the repair front. The sailmaker could come today and the Raymarine engineer had parts on hand and could troubleshoot the system tomorrow

I spend all day updating my blog and check the admin edits in WordPress. Completing two blog posts in one day is pretty tiring and a waste of good weather in an unexplored location but since there is no internet access at sea, it has to be done now if it is done at all. Herbert had a friend visiting Lanzarote and after a brief introduction on the boat, he left to spend the day with her instead of two salty sailors.

Don’t wait up was the message I inferred from their departure. The evening was soon upon us and I invited Thomas to dinner and after browsing the Tapas bars around the old fishing harbour, we happened upon “Cala” and enjoyed a spontaneously pleasant evening with fine Tapas and Lanzarote wine from grapes grown actually in pits dug in the volcano.

Upon our return, Herbert was waiting up for us. He had only just missed us when we left the boat. The irony of my “don’t wait up” thought was amusing, if only for me.

5 Dec

Things looked promising for departure tomorrow so victualling had to be done for the long voyage across to the Caribbean. My least favourite job of sailing but eased by having an accomplice, Herbert. Herbert and I located Mercadona which couldn’t deliver until Thursday since it was a public holiday tomorrow Wednesday, so we ended up in Hiper Dino. Pretty soon we were two trolleys fully laden with groceries and €340 lighter.

Herbert was on a mission to source some fishing hooks to replace ours that had rusted away between Turkey and Gibraltar. He sent a photo to check whether they were the right ones. I told him they looked fine but when I saw them live they were 4 times as big as the old ones: an error of relative scale in the photograph. These were shark hooks. 18:55 and still no grocery delivery. Waiting onboard Pantelisa was pointless so I went to the cafe joined later by Herbert and Thomas. We were enjoying a beer at the cafe with a clear view of both the car park and pontoon gate. Seconds after our order arrived, the Hiper Dino van turned up and the occupants set about loading crates onto their barrow and we escorted them down to the boat. After two trips, Pnatelisa’s cockpit was stacked with carrier bags full of food, beer and wine.

6 Dec

The wind vane fault was confusing the engineer. The transducer at the top of the mast was proven to be faulty and the repaired one still didn’t work. It was either the cable in the mast or the control box.

A test of the control box revealed it was faulty too. Why? We were puzzled until Marco asked, have you been near any lightning?

Sicily! We were in it with strikes as close as 100 metres in the same storm that tore our mainsail in half. We hadn’t looked at the wind vane when we limped under motor into port in Palermo. I had assumed that the repair of the steaming light in Palermo disturbed the cable of connectors to the wind vane instruments.

With the repair complete we installed the Genoa that had been neatly strengthened and folded on the pontoon from the night before and we were ready to go.

The Atlantic Trio

With spirits high, we went for a farewell drink at the local cafe and headed out into the harbour to calibrate the wind vane. Two cruise ships were moored there but we still had room to circulate clockwise until the computer said OK. Three blasts from the Tui cruise ship’s horn indicated that her engines were astern and we were 200 metres behind her. It was time to make a sharp exit abandoning the calibration. We could mentally compensate for the thirty degree error in the wind direction but the calculation for true windspeed would be incorrect. The main thing was that the autopilot could now steer to the wind. instead of a bearing.

Trafalgar

Rounding Tarifa point, we were out of the current and up to 8 knots, hitting 9 briefly. We were flying out of the Mediterranean and into the Atlantic. The new crew weren’t experienced so Thomas was coaching them in meticulous detail. Thomas is a fine teacher, he reminded me of things I had either forgotten or had never noticed before.

We had goose-winged the Genoa. All was going well until the seasickness kicked in. Jan clipped his safety harness on and hung his head over the side of the boat. The waves weren’t high but they were steep and short in wavelength from the stern, which made the boat roll from side to side.

There was plenty of traffic about into the night, The Straits of Gibraltar and its approaches are a funnel for cargo ships. Herbert joined me at the change of watch and I relayed as much tips and info as I could. Jan slept in for a couple of hours and Herbert fetched him at 2am. Poor guy was sick all night. I turned in at 5.20am and could hear him wretching an empty stomach for the rest of the morning.

We made good speed night and day and we were due in Lagos early afternoon, earlier than expected. We decided to head for Portimao, and anchor at the mouth of the Arade river for the night. We were still running with the wind and needed a change of course northward pretty soon. We would sail west for 7 or 8 miles and turn north transferring the Genoa to the port side to join the mainsail for a broad reach. 10 minutes later, the wind veered 30 degrees to the north, flapping the Genoa. I put 10 degrees on the autopilot and hauled the Genoa over to port for a beam reach. The new course would cut the corner of the original and we still made good speed.

4pm, we had dropped anchor behind the breakwater of the Arade River. We were the only vessel there and had the estuary to ourselves. Jan and Herbert seemed keen to get ashore. Although Pantelisa was hardly moving in the calm behind the breakwater.

We inflated the dinghy and the duo rowed ashore to Praia da Rocha. I stayed aboard with the skipper to enjoy the peace and quiet and set about making a curry.

The evening was pleasant and relaxed at anchor with the wake of the outgoing fishing boats lapping gently at our hull while sharing a curry in the warm glow of the saloon followed by a tranquil and restful night.

Weighing anchor, we only needed 6 miles to Lagos but decided it was nice enough for a sail rather than to motor for an hour. With the wind from the east, we would travel out to sea on a beam reach and gybe on broad reach into Lagos.

By 11, we were moored on the pontoon in the river near the Marina office jumping through bureaucratic hoops with a pleasant coast guard official wearing a fetching beret on his head and a shiny gun on his hip. I couldn’t see him ever using it but appearances have to be maintained I suppose.

It was a hard day in Lagos after we docked in the Marina. I envisioned myself laying back on my bunk drafting my next blog post but instead, I was scrubbing decks, sponging the condensation out of the bottom of the fridge and cleaning the floor. I discovered a drain plug in the fridge and could see a hose leading into the bilge below. I took up the floor panel to find a mini pond of stale water with mosquito larvae cheerfully swimming around. In the bottom of the bilge, there was a drain hole and Thomas prodded it with a screwdriver and the water began to drain into another compartment.

Eventually, all the holes were cleared and we drained and cleaned the bilges. A thunderstorm passed overhead and the rain washed the soap off the decks for me.

The showers were superb, I stayed under the hot spray until my fingers and toes began to wrinkle and the water started to run cool.

After a few hours ashore, Jan began to recover from his seasickness and consulted Thomas about continuing to the Canaries. It was decided Jan would abandon the trip here. The prospect of 5 or 6 days of seasickness was too much to stomach…

Herbert, Jan and I walked through the twilight to the local supermarket for the victualling. Shopping is an unpleasant task to start with. Decoding Portuguese doesn’t help one little bit. We got most of what we needed or decent substitutes and returned after darkness fallen.

Seeing as this was our first and last leg as a quartet, we went out to dinner to celebrate a perfect passage. I was famished with all the activity, as I’m sure Jan and Herbert were with their stomachs emptied.

I’d done a fair bit of writing but not much editing and I had been falling behind on the blog again. The rest of the night I spent determined to get out another blog post before setting off to the Canaries. After the evening meal, being easily influenced, I ducked into Spinnakers for a nightcap with Thomas, Herbert while Jan retreated to Pantelisa. Football commentary was barking out of the three flat screen TVs accompanied by the groans and criticisms of the handful of Brits at the bar.

In contrast, we found ourselves engrossed in conversations about psychology, ayahuasca, higher powers and other deep life subjects. Not the common topics discussed in sports bars. I’m not one for small talk but big talk like this that gets to the core of living is food for the soul which energised me for the rest of the evening.

When we got in I fired up the laptop and got stuck in to the blog, feeling inspired. I finally got to sleep at 3am. First drafts are getting rougher, refinements are getting more frequent and edits take longer. This method ensures I keep on top of the details of the ever-changing adventure but means editing gets stacked up and becomes more difficult to process before publishing.

Additionally, I’d been on a month-long program called 28 days of courage, where I picked something in which I wanted a breakthrough and then committed to it for 28 days. This year it was making videos – purely because I feared public speaking and being in the limelight. There was only one aim: to make a video every day. Quality and content was not a factor. As I write, I have one more to do and since we are a few hours into Day 1 of our leg to the Canaries, setting off later today, it will be on day 2, well offshore and out of contact, by then. The knock on effect of doing these videos every day had improved my relationship with video and audio communications, live and recorded. Writing is still my favourite medium but audio and video are so much more heartfelt in personal communications.

Heavy showers continued throughout the night permeating my dreamscape by keeping me on the edge of consciousness, intensifying this other life and when I awoke, bleary-eyed, the sun was up along with the temperature.

My first mission. this morning, was to get more beer and water for the trip: heavy items that exceeded yesterdays carrying capacity of our rucksacks. I called Anna to tell her we were off and to wish her luck on her new adventures and she told me that there were currently heavy rain and storms in Gibraltar heavy enough to hide the view of the rock. I could hear the thunder down the phone above the inane piped music down aisle 7 of the supermarket.

The weather was perfect where we were and after a regretful farewell to Jan, we were soon heading southwest to Lanzarote as a trio with a lively north wind pushing us from our starboard quarter (back right to you squire.) The Lagos dogleg was the better decision. Not only did we avoid the storm we would have had to motored through but we also benefited from good winds. Longer in miles but shorter in time and diesel.

The further we got from shore the more the wind built and higher the swells rose. Pretty soon, Herbert retreated to his cabin for relief from the rolling seas.

The seasickness tablets hadn’t kicked in just yet and if they never worked then there would likely be another 5 days of this…

Anna

Tuesday 21st and our long-delayed arrival at Gibraltar ended with the tying of the warps to Pantalan 12, berth 43 at Alcaidesa Marina, La Linea, where Herbert was ready and waiting to join the crew; and had been for the past two weeks, and Anna was due to join tomorrow afternoon.

Herbert stepped off the pontoon onto the boat and settled his bags into the forward port cabin next to mine. While we set about cleaning the boat and tending to laundry. Julien took care of his cabin and ‘fresh-water’ laundry, while I headed to La Linea to look for some detergent.

I was gone for a while, searching dusty featureless streets of shuttered stores and finally found an open shop, Super Sol supermarket bucking the Siesta trend. I was hungry by then so dropped into the modestly named Okay Cafe along the Calle Real pedestrian precinct for a Tuna sandwich and Green Tea, wild character that I am. It was better than OK, it was all right and cheap too.

Returning to Pantelisa, Julian bid his farewells and joined his brother on his way to Morocco. There was only an hour before the evening dew would be settling on the decks, so my laundry was postponed until the next day. The forecast was warm and sunny: an ideal drying day. Herbert left to meet friends in La Linea for drinks and I turned in at 8pm for a deep restful sleep since I had been up 20 hours since the extended watch into Gibraltar.

9am the next morning, I crossed the entertaining border into Gibraltar and I thought I’d try out an experiment and produced my driving licence at the Gibraltar side.

“That’s a Driving licence.”
“I know, I’m Britsh.”
“But Britain is not part of the Schengen agreement”.”
“I don’t know what that means.”
“Certain states agreed to open their borders and ‘WE’ didn’t agree. And ‘WE’ never voted for Brexit either…”
“So Gibraltar is a part of Britain?”
“Yes, and it will be hell here at the border when Brexit kicks in in a couple of years.”
“But I’m British, why can’t I get in using my licence?”
“We are not in Schengen.”
… pauses to get passport out of bag.

I found my way out of the bright sunlight, through shade of the Landport Tunnel into to the Britishness of the Lord Nelson pub on Casemates Square and caught up on some communications and writing then went for a haircut. The barber was an English guy from Poole, telling me about the Costa del Crime up the coast towards Marbella. Still an attraction for wannabe gangsters apparently, even though the extradition protection for criminals on-the-run disappeared half a century ago.

Freshly trimmed, I explored a little around the back streets of Gibraltar and made my way back to the Nelson to finish off some notes for the blog. Anna should have landed at Malaga at 2pm, as I recall and I messaged her to say she could meet me in Gibraltar if she liked but she replied that she was still a fair way off. I packed up at 4.30 and headed back toward the boat, instead settling in the sun’s warm rays at the skate park next to the marina. Anna was only half an hour away, so it was a good excuse to hang around and generate some vitamin D. Traveling southwest along the coast in a navy blue Skoda estate, courtesy of BlaBla car. €8 from Malaga to Gibraltar. I’d used BlaBla Car before, but only as a driver, using the company van stacked to the roof with organic fruit and veg, transporting a bemused young lady from Swindon to Bristol for about a fiver.

The language barrier between Anna and the driver made an interesting interaction, I heard later, but the driver showed her how to switch on live location in WhatsApp and she got me to do the same. You can imagine how that works. It’s like Google Maps but you can see other people’s movements who share their location. The icon roaming around the map of La Linea kept me entertained for the rest of her journey and pretty soon her icon materialised into a real person into my physical reality across the skate park.

Boarding the boat, Herbert was relaxing in the cockpit and had been there for a couple of hours but Thomas was already at the Lord Nelson with a keen hunger for fish and chips so we made our way across the border and airfield into the pub for our first introduction as a full crew of four on Pantelisa. After a fish and chip dinner and drink together, Anna and I went for a catch-up pint at Ocean Village Marina. It didn’t matter that the London Pride tasted like vinegar, the reunion was sweet enough.

I went to the Nelson for a breakfast. Getting there just before the noon deadline. The barman glanced sourly at the clock and resigned himself to accept my order. I stayed there all day updating the blog. Anna joined me later that afternoon for a couple of drinks. I closed my laptop and abandoned my work without hesitation. Good company is rarer than WiFi and more transient. These opportunities should not be missed.

Anna told me about a tapas bar that her mum recommended called “La Chiminea” and we headed over the border into La Linea for dinner recalling our adventures around Antigua and Dominica. During the big blank in my blog between March and June when I first met Anna on Skyran, her Dad’s catamaran, and we both jumped ship in Dominica to Susie’s boat “Spirited Lady of Fowey.” Somehow, all that seems a different era, especially with St Martin flattened by Hurricane Irma and claiming Glee. And Dominica being flattened by Hurricane Maria. La Chiminea slowly filled with cheerful and gregarious locals generating a friendly ambience. Good food, cold beer and warm company made for a rare escape from my usual ‘table for one’ experience in cyberspace.

Anna has a cousin in Gibraltar she had never met and went to introduce herself while I trecked over to Morrisons and flip-flopped through the aisles for the victualling. There had been some action on the ‘diesel contribution’ front, while I was away. The same issue I brought up with Michael in Colombia, who said he’d speak with Toni and was awaiting a response, but remained as yet unresolved. It was near dusk when I returned and, however the diesel issue had been raised, it felt like there had been a mutiny in my absence.

Thomas messaged Toni to clarify and we nervously awaited the outcome. Claes hailed me from the pontoon gate to join him for a beer at the Marina bar. We were all meant to finish the victualling at the cheaper Mercadona in La Linea but the diesel issue presented an obstruction too large to be ignored and so was abandoned.

The verdict was in: seeing as how the time pressure had us motoring a lot more due to unfavourable winds (if any) the diesel would be paid as long as it was for the case of unfavourable winds or emergencies. That seemed fair to me I was happy since I hadn’t budgeted for the fuel. Anna and Herbert were chatting together near the shower block and I cheerfully went over to share the good news. I expected everybody would be happy with the outcome. Anna decided she still didn’t want to continue because of various other issues, and Herbert was now undecided too. We could be losing two crew in as many days. Herbert went for a solitary stroll to think things through.

With he shopping abandoned, I joined Claes for that beer. Every cloud has a silver lining. The bar was empty apart from Claes and me and we had a good catch up. I had been looking after his boat in St Martin which sank in the lagoon along with mine. Anna joined us later saying she’d probably stick around La Linea and figure out what she wanted to do. I was simultaneously disappointed she wasn’t coming and impressed that she wasn’t bailing out to just go home. Instead, she would seek out her own adventure in Andalucia.

Herbert dropped by the bar to say he was still in. I was pleased to hear that: a ray of sun in a stormy sky. Herbert is an interesting young guy easy to be around and I had a good feeling about him. We could continue as a trio but he had a candidate in mind for Anna’s replacement.

We were up at daybreak all set to sail to Lagos to avoid a storm that was heading towards us up from the Canaries. Instead of sailing through it against wind and rain, the plan was to navigate around it and catch the turn of the wind from Lagos to Gran Canaria. We would be slightly closer but also have more options on the angle of the wind.

Claes joined us and the crew for a farewell cup of tea on the back of the boat. Anna’s replacement, Jan, joined us. I said goodbye to Anna and hello to Jan. This was the first time I’d met him but Herbert knew him from mingling and dumpster diving with the hitchhikers around the dock. Pretty soon, we were off. Around noon. We motored around Punto del Carnero into a healthy tailwind. We were moving through the water fast but doing only 4.5 knots over ground. The current was against us. As the wind picked up, we ‘goose-winged’ the sails, rigging the Genoa out windward on the Spinnaker pole and leaving the mainsail leeward and then sailing along at a healthy 6 knots, although Pantelisa felt twitchy wanting to constantly turn toward the following swell. With a confused sea, it made helming unpredictable although it looked promising to arrive at Lagos during daylight the very next day…

The Rock

Thursday 16th November. At last, we were on our way to Gibraltar. We slipped the lines at Marina Sifredi before sunrise and motored toward the reddening sky over Sardinia before being chased out of the harbour by the Carloforte ferry.

Bearing west around the southern cape of San Pietro, the waves were short in height and long in wavelength from the north-west giving us a gentle roll on our way.

When dusk faded into the night, I cooked up a Spanish Tortilla. Not a great choice with Pantelisa hard over on heal. I was sliding across the sloping floor. I took my socks off to help get some grip and leaned into the stove to get some balance. I got away without burning anything, including the dinner but it would be wiser to tailor dinner to the conditions.

I came on watch at midnight. If we are sailing, we hand steer to save power. The new compass lights were too dim to make out the bearings and I began to bear away to the south squinting into the globe for a clue. Pantelisa has two steering wheels. Over on the starboard side is the autopilot with its bright screen giving the bearing in digital format but that side is exposed to the stream of the cooling wind. I stayed there a while while I scanned the constellations in the sky and picked out a pattern of stars ahead and retreated to the leeward side of the boat and steered towards them. After a while, clouds formed ahead covering my astronomical beacons but I discovered if I looked abeam or astern, I could just as easily keep my course using those constellations. And so, Ursa Major, over my right shoulder, became my guide.

The next day, the wind shifted to the north-west pushing us further to the south so we adjusted away from the Balearics toward to Algerian coast. At 3am, the asthmatic wind quietly passed its last breath and the motor was brought to life again and we chugged our way on the edge of the shipping lanes.

I emerged from my cabin the next morning to the surreal sight of a mirror calm sea reflecting a soothing yellow sun. the mumble of the Perkins Diesel the only disturbance of the tranquillity. A turtle bobbed to the surface, startled by the arrival of humans over its domain. It reminded me of the carving I’d made that was left on Glee.

The afternoon gave birth to a light breeze: an opportunity to try out the gennaker with the spinnaker boom that holds the billowing sail out into the wind, a huge delicate sail designed to catch light airs. A useful exercise if not a convincing contribution to our progress. With the engine pushing Pantelisa along at 5 knots in a 5 knot tailwind, the sail hung limply in the resulting calm. We routed the sheet the wrong way around a line that acted as a stay for the boom. The result was an annoying squeak when the wind filled the sail and pulled on the boom rather than moving clearly through the block. Eventually, we hauled in the gennaker but left the boom out for later.

At sunset, the wind had faded leaving the wind vane at the top of the mast spinning like a windmill as we rocked from side to side. And, to the south, the lilac silhouette of the Atlas Mountains painted their rugged outline against the orange sky.

With the wind gone, we bore north toward the Spanish coast accompanied by the hum of the engine. When I came on the night watch, we were within mobile signal, which brought me in touch with the digital world and contact with friends and family. We were well north of the shipping channels but we still had to look out for hazards: especially fishing boats and cruise ships from the shore, so a look around every five minutes was still vital.

Mon 20th, We were motoring too much but, without wind, we had little choice. New crew were awaiting us in Gibraltar. The fuel gauge started to fall, which was a warning from last time that we were already short of diesel and I reduced the revs by 100 when I was at the helm. As soon as some wind presented itself, the Gennaker went up and bulged with healthy force adding over 2 knots to our speed and we cut the engine until the wind died at 2pm and we hauled in the sail.

Coming on watch at midnight, Dolphins were splashing in the green light of the starboard navigation light. They would escort us all the way to the rock of Gibraltar. I could make out the rock of Gibraltar in the distance against the hazy sky illuminated by the city lights of Tangier, over the straits. What was it 5 miles, 8 maybe? I checked the plotter. 14 miles. Still 3 hours away. It was time for Julien to come on watch but I was happy here and stayed on.

We had some wind from the south that brought out the Genoa, adding some speed and cutting back the revs to save some fuel. The gauge was at a half which indicates about 20 litres or 6 hours motoring. We were still about 3 hours away. Every breath of wind was a welcome help.

The wind switched to the north as we got closer to the rock and I trimmed the genoa to the starboard tack. The shipping traffic was busy to the south and the anchored vessels that we were approaching were weighing anchor and moving off out of our path with no need to adjust our course.

Europa point lighthouse was dead ahead, winking at me as it had been all night. We were lucky in catching the ebb tide which counteracts the inward current through the straits of Gibraltar. With the headsail up we were making 6 knots at little more than tickover.

Dawn broke as we approached Europa point, painting the sheer east face of the rock in a warm shade of peach. After a knock on the door from the skipper, Julien emerged at 7.30am just in time to catch the view as we rounded Europa point. The light at Europa point went out as we rounded into the bay around the anchored shipping and into the current. I checked the fuel gauge; little more than a quarter, and who knows how much that indicates.

Docking at the fuel station, we took on 241 litres of diesel in our 250 litre tank. The gauge shows just over a quarter. Pretty much useless as an indicator. We can estimate that we have 12 hours of cruising when the gauge starts to move off full, and that is not much considering the scale of the passages we are engaged in. We should use the engine hours indicator as our fuel indicator from now on.

Pulling into Alcaidesa marina, Herbert was already at the pontoon, cheerfully smiling and waving while Thomas delicately reversed Pantelisa into the berth and Julien and I were tending the warps and adjusting the fenders…

Notes From A Small Island

A Bill Brysonesque title, I would agree. Smaller island, fewer notes so no real comparison.

Carloforte is a beautiful town of narrow cobbled streets of quaint Ligurian architecture. The atmosphere is relaxed and friendly. As soon as we moored up, scrubbed the decks and hosed down Pantelisa, Thomas took us to a local Cafe for the best cappuccino I had ever tasted. I’m not normally a coffee drinker but no-one seems to do coffee like the Italians. It was a warming interlude in ongoing marine maintenance.

The day was becoming bright and warm as we returned to the boat and we set about decamping the forward berths and drying out the mattresses on the quayside in the ascending sun. Julien was, once again, hoisted up the mast. This time to replace the cable from the newly fitted deck light down the mast to the connector below the deck but above the leaky panel. The screws holding the conduit for the cables from the mast were loose. Replacing the screws with nuts and bolts and tightening the flange cured that leak. Next were the hatches.

The O rings had perished on the hatch ventilators which was letting in the water in through the screws drip by drip. Not a lot but over the course of hours and days, enough to give anything below a good soaking. We had a collection of O rings but none the right thickness to replace the old ones. Thomas had the idea of putting an O ring inside between the hatch and the screw head instead. That worked as long as the screw wasn’t so tight as to deform the O ring. My job was to go round all the hatches adding O rings to screws, testing with the hose as I went and the O rings seemed to do the trick.

Sunday

Thomas suggested a bike ride. I wanted to catch up on my blog but said yes anyway for a feeling of team spirit and camaraderie, besides, if I don’t do anything, I have nothing to write about. Julien said ‘non’ and stayed behind, he appears to be more antisocial than me, he does what he wants without apparent concern for what others might think – which is a skill I’d like to cultivate to the point of second nature without having to work at it. The urge to Fit in’ has been a terrible curse in the past.

The cycle hire shop was closed but the owner responded to a quick phone call. I produced my last €20 note but it wasn’t required until we returned the bikes and so it went back into my pocket.

“Documenti?” the shop owner asked. We had none but instead accepted €100 deposit. The day wasn’t particularly warm but a few minutes pedal and heart pumping up the Sardinian hills past lemon and olive trees soon warmed me up. The cool northerly wind whipped up the white horses along the blue straits between Carloforte and Sardinia, simultaneously trying to push me back down the hills I was panting against. We cycled up to the north point to experience the full force of the mistral. Foaming waves were crashing on the rocks while the spindly shrubs turned their backs and bowed their heads to the south.

“Il Fungo” Thomas said, pointing at the map. An almost legendary giant fungus was close by and we set off in search around the narrow and undulating gravel tracks. After a while of navigating the back lanes, we gave up and resorted to Google revealed that the colossal mushroom had collapsed in 2010 and left no remains. Thomas asked if I’d like to go on but after the hour or so of standing up on pedals and getting off to push the bike up the steepest slopes, I said I wanted enough energy to get back to town and we headed back. The return journey turned out to be a fast downhill descent into the town and we were back within 15 minutes. If I’d have known, I could have carried on for another hour or so… we were back early.

Monday

A grey, damp and windy day. It felt more like Wales than the Med. This was why we were here in Carloforte, to shelter from the mistral out of the north… I caught up on my blogs, well almost anyway. A slight interruption of returning the bikes back spoilt the flow. Checking my pockets for my €20… gone. It must have worked its way out while I was pedalling my way up the hills. Gutted. It reminded me when Deb lost £50 in Bath Abbey, which seemed like a big deal at the time. Deb died a year and a half ago… and I had a thought: I get to live the years that she no longer has. Being ‘not dead’ puts things in perspective.

I noticed the guy in the boat next door leaves his folding bikes unlocked on the quay. There seems to be a surprising lack of crime here, something that endears me more to this island, even on this cold and blustery day. We leave the boat open without worry the whole time we are here.

The best strategy for today was to stay on the boat and sit under the blankets to keep warm: writing, remembering, editing, rewriting and re-editing. None of this writing comes easy but what else to do on a day like this?

Tuesday

I went for a wander around Carloforte. It was still cold but dry and bright. At the top of the hill, there are the remains of the town’s fortifications, a stately looking school, and a museum. The museum was closed and didn’t advertise its opening hours. The heavy blank doors gave the impression it wasn’t even interested in visitors. A sign outside portrayed an old fleet and mentioned Napoleon within its Italian text. I took a few photos of the view across the straits to Sardinia and turned my back on the chill wind and made my way down the narrow streets back to Pantelisa.

Thomas asked if I had been shopping. I had inherited this god-awful task by volunteering to look after the kitty. I said “No, I’ll do it tomorrow morning.” until it was pointed out we had nothing to eat except pasta and parmesan. Thomas offered to come along and invited Julien too. Julien said ‘Non.’ So Thomas and I went to the local supermarket to stock up on €155 worth of groceries for the forthcoming leg to Gibraltar. Dinner turned out to be pasta and parmesan, garnished with some newly bought pesto.

Wednesday

I awoke at 7 to noticeably less condensation around my hatch and a brighter sky above. There would be no rain today, but the mistral, although less powerful, still nursed a northerly chill.

The mission today was to find some eggs, which were sorely lacking at the supermarket last night. At noon, I took a walk through the streets of Carloforte toward something marked Mercato del Mercoledi on Google maps and happened upon an open air market just before its 1pm closing. Fruit, veg and eggs were there aplenty. The sun was perfectly aligned with the longitudinal streets which were sheltered from the breeze as I took this solar heated detour back to the marina.

The town was unusually busy and children were thronging the streets. It was a pleasant communal atmosphere that reminded me of my childhood back in rural Northamptonshire but had long since disappeared. I found a cafe in the corner of the Piazza Repubblica and ordered a cappuccino at a corner table of the corner cafe in the sun. Ten minutes later, the town was deserted. Apparently, 15th November is the celebration of Madonna dello Schiavo. I don’t know where everyone went but I ordered another cappuccino anyway to savour the contrasting solitude.

Returning to Pantelisa, the weather looked OK for tomorrow so we prepared the boat for sail before it got dark. We discovered that one of our valued crew was absent for the voyage: the autopilot… which was now not working. We had a brief meeting where we agreed to continue to Gibraltar steering by hand – old style. It would be hard but we were all agreed: we would go and have it fixed in Gibraltar.

Relieved about the spirit and solidarity of the crew, Thomas took us for a beer. By the time we had finished, Rolf forwarded some instructions via WhatsApp for what and where to check for the autopilot. Julien located a faulty fuse that when touched with a fingertip brought the autopilot to life. He switched that fuse with one of the same rating on the inverter and both devices seemed happy with the exchange, and we were happy that Ray, the Raymarine autopilot, was back with us and hoped we would still be there tomorrow.

Crossing the Tyrrhenian Sea

We were safely holed up for the front coming from the west and set about making repairs. It was becoming apparent that Phoenix Charters weren’t particularly diligent about maintenance of Pantelisa. During the storm and heavy seas, water was finding its way through the closed hatch vents, soaking the forward berths and water was pouring through a ceiling panel near the foot of the mast. The compass lights weren’t working, The Steaming light and Deck light weren’t working, the bilge pump wasn’t working… and the list was slowly growing the more we were getting to know the boat.

The three days in Palermo were pretty concentrated on arranging or performing repairs and my blogging had taken a back seat. We stripped down the Bimini and took its cracked frame to be welded. The sailmaker did an excellent job of replacing a section of sail and fitted new slug slides, that hold the sail to the mast since these were pretty worn and brittle and a few had broken during the storm. The sailmaker suggested that the broken slug slide next to Thomas’s repair contributed to the torn sail as it would have offered a gap for the wind to take a hold and the resultant bulge at the would have ripped the sail from forward to back.

Thomas was a real asset here, as not being able to speak the language makes things 5 times as difficult, as I found in Catania. Not only that, Thomas has an eye for detail and a proactive attitude that gets things done, caring for Pantelisa as much as his own boat.

We were up early to leave Palermo. Half a mile out we noticed the wind direction and speed indicator wasn’t working. An impromptu meeting: should we return to the Marina to repair the indicator or continue to Sardinia? We could miss the weather window if we returned so we decided to continue; we could reef (reduce sail) and go cautiously at night.

That night we hit another lightning storm although I miraculously slept through this one, as we were slamming into waves in the centre of a thunderstorm with my head inches from the impact zone of hull on wave. Apparently, the lightning was all around and more frequent than the previous one. Julien said you could read a book by it, although I’d guess he probably wasn’t.

It was two nights voyage to San Pietro, a small island on the west coast of Sardinia

The next day was fairly straightforward, we had a dry day with a bright and breezy northerly wind that kept us sailing along. Nothing really to see or report

When I came on watch at midnight, we were already off the south coast of Sardinia with one ship to the north-east on an intercept course with our track. We were in the lee of Sardinia and motoring along a flat sea at a leisurely four and a half knots with the main task of keeping an eye on the approaching ship, I watched the giant cargo ship quietly pass at a half a mile off our starboard beam and steadily speed ahead of us. I didn’t have to change course or speed.

Being so close to the coast means that I could get internet so could catch up on messages. We were well ahead of schedule for early morning at San Pietro so increasing speed would be pointless. For the next couple of hours and in the absence of waves, I’d surf the internet for 5 minutes then check the AIS and scan the horizon.

We were due to change course at Capo Teulada to a northwesterly track toward Capo Sperone. Simultaneously we were out of the lee and the northerly wind heeled Pantelisa over five degrees. Without the wind indicator, it was hard to tell if it were enough wind to sail but sticking my head outside the bimini, it certainly felt like it.

Up until now, watches were just a case of holding one course and looking out for ships and problems. This was the first time I’d been on watch alone for a change of course so I steered the new heading and saw the wind was still at a favourable angle for sailing, if a bit close, and unfurled the genoa to the second reef. Easing back to tick over, the speed maintained at 5.5 knots and I cut the engine.

This change was enough to bring the skipper out for a double check which is as reassuring for me as much as him. It was deemed to be a good decision and Thomas retreated to his cabin and I enjoyed a good sail for a couple of hours without motor, the only concern on this new bearing was Isola Del Toro, a large rock hosting a lighthouse which was in our leeway (the path we drift due to the sideways push of the wind). Ideally, we should turn a new heading before then and, in the absence of boat traffic, the light on the rock was the only thing to look out for.

I was due to call Julien at four for his watch but I didn’t want to miss the new course change and stayed on for an extra half hour. The wind increased at the point I was thinking of turning which brought out both Julian and the skipper so we started the motor and changed course into the wind furling the genoa as a full crew.

I’d had a taste of single handing and it was sweet. It’s different to following orders as it involves an expanded awareness and often there is more than one choice for a given situation.

Under motor, head to the wind, Pantelisa was now banging northward through the waves but I was so tired I slept through it anyway, despite my cabin dropping over each crest into the concrete troughs below. My cabin had not dried out from the night before and was still leaking so I blissfully slept in my clothes under damp blankets.

I awoke to activity on the deck and grey light filtering through the hatch, and I arose just as Thomas came to announce we were nearly Isola di San Pietro. With a groggy head, even tying a clove hitch was a challenge but we prepared the fenders and docked neatly in Carloforte shortly before 9am Saturday 11th November.

We were sheltering from another approaching front. Forty knot winds from the west: the direction we wanted to go. So far, we were mooring more than we were sailing and the forecast looked like it was putting us here in Carloforte for at least five days…

The Javelins of Jupiter

As much as I felt at home in Catania, it felt good to get back on the water. With just three weeks on Pantelisa, I was the old hand; in years as well as time on board. We had new crew: Thomas, the skipper, and Julien ‘the hitcher’.

We set off just after first light to make the best of the weather: sunny with light airs and we turned north along the coast to the Straits of Messina.

The sail was hoisted and Thomas repaired a broken sail track slide that no-one had noticed before with a neighbouring one missing a loop with nowhere to hang the sail. The sun was warm and the following swell gently rocked us along. Etna’s peak to the east protruding the top of the fluffy cumulus, adding her own faint plume. We would arrive at Messina around 4pm and should be around the cape before dark.

The narrow Straits of Messina are a funnel, both for traffic and current. Traffic was light and the frequent ferries between Sicily and the toe of Italy’s boot were easy to avoid. The current was against us and the gentle swell turned into a spiky chop. The water was like a washing machine and we lost a couple of knots speed. Further north, the current reversed and travelled with the wind and swell, the water smoothed to almost a slick and our speed boosted to 10 knots.

Rounding the cape at Torre Faro, our gentle following breeze turned into a lively broad reach and, with the wind chill, the temperature began falling along with the evening sun. The gusts were trying to round us up into the wind but we held on knowing we would be in the lee to the north of Etna in about half an hour. In Etna’s lee, things became quiet. We fired up the engine and I turned in to get some rest before my early morning shift.

The wind and sea picked up as we emerged from the mountain’s shelter, so we edged closer to shore for an easier life. My watch was to be from 3am but with the state of the sea banging the hull under my bunk, I couldn’t sleep so was up on deck from midnight.

With the gusts trying to head us up into the wind, we furled the genoa (headsail) and motored for keeping a stable course over night. Julien turned in and we were in clear water with no marine traffic on the plotter as we motored into the night.

Squinting out over the starboard bow at about 3.30am, the horizon looked blacker than usual, I could see no stars ahead and there were some flashes in the distant sky. I went below to put on my waterproofs and life vest and alerted Thomas that a storm might be approaching. As I returned to the deck, Bam, a sudden thirty knot wind on the starboard bow changed from the steady twenty knot wind on the port, that had been with us all evening, like a light switch and Pantelisa heeled from one side to the other. I rounded up northward into the wind to ease the effect.

Thomas and I tried to get the sail down as fast as we could but the sail got stuck in the lazy jacks, lines that help guide the sail into its bag on the boom, and with the wind now gusting to 50 knots and rain restricting visibility, we could neither hoist nor lower the mainsail. The wind was shaking the rig and flogging our sail to shreds. We couldn’t see anything outside of the cockpit and all we could do was sit tight and hope that everything would hold together.

We were running blind. The motor was still pushing us along and the plotter reassured us we were heading in the right direction nowhere near land or any other boats, at least those that broadcast AIS. We had no idea how long this storm was set to last and moods were pretty low and the lightning was intensifying.

We were the highest point for miles in this storm and lightning was increasingly hitting the sea on all sides like javelins from the sky. I was looking astern when a blinding flash turned my head away and a deafening explosion less than half a second put the strike no more than one hundred metres away in our wake. We were right on that spot maybe thirty seconds ago. We either had divine protection or the ancient Roman god of thunder found us too small a target to hit. Thomas and I sat silently in the cockpit wrapped in our own thoughts, sparse insulation against the damp chill of the turbulent wind and rain.

By daybreak, the storm had eased and the tattered silhouette of the sail waved at us through the twilight. A sad sight, but we were lucky not have suffered worse. The sail had been torn across half way up with a few shreds linking the halves together. Thomas had found his repair had held but the sail had torn away from the rest of the fitting. He tidied up the sail from the mast end while I tried to zip up the cover from the other end. I thought the zipper had been torn away but it was discovered later hidden by a velcro cover. Meanwhile, we bound the sail up with a line to make ourselves decent before we entered Porto di Palermo.

We approached Palermo with sunlight penetrating the clouds and a rainbow arcing over the bay. A stark contrast to what went only hours before: perhaps a salute from the old god of thunder… Thomas is fluent in Italian so was easily able to use the VHF to locate a marina close to a sailmaker. Maybe the sail could be stitched back together. We would soon see.

Porto di Palermo is not pretty by any stretch, but the rusting cranes on the concrete shore were every bit as welcoming as Caribbean palms on a sun-kissed beach. The approach to the port was flat calm and the soggy grey clouds dissolved into the cool blue sky with hardly a breeze beneath the warm early morning sun and we coasted through the industrial iron seascape of Porto di Palermo toward Marina Nautico Galizzi.

Bad weather was forecast. Palermo was one of our intermediate destinations for sheltering from the forthcoming front, the other being the more beautiful Trapani. We had made it on schedule but not in the manner we had planned… and we had three days to make repairs if we weren’t to lose any time, and Palermo might just be the place to do that…

Down in Catania

Santo, the marina manager, caught the lines thrown from the stern of Pantelisa as she reversed into the berth. Santo remembered Toni from when he was in Catania a couple of years ago, which helped in the generous loan of his car to ferry the Italian Navy’s empty canisters to the fuel station, fill up and back, and relay by wheelbarrow and syphon to the boat’s fuel tank.

With the boat topped up, deck cleared and hosed down we could actually kick back and relax for a bit. Note for the future, check the cockpit windows are closed before hosing the footwell, Toni’s mattress got a good soaking.

However, “worse things happen at sea” and “every cloud has a silver lining and all that.” Removal of the mattress gives access to the fuel tank and revealed a diesel leak around the tank inspection hatch, so we caught that before it found its way into the bilge and started stinking the boat out. Accidental villain turned accidental hero.

Toni treated us to a few drinks at the Piazza Vincenzo Bellini and a nice meal at the Trattoria la Pentalaccia. It’s a different experience sharing space with people on land to on the boat and I get to know Toni and Rolf a little better. On the water, the background mission is always the boat. Our lives depend on it so we are never fully off duty.

With Toni and Rolf returning home to Switzerland, I’m left minding Pantelisa for two weeks until Thomas, the new skipper arrives. There are still jobs to get done: laundry of the bedding, repair cracked bimini frame, install anti-chaffing fitment at the top of the mast, and restock the galley.

I keep promising myself to take a trip up to Etna but I stay on the boat three days without leaving the marina. I see Santo and show him the cracked frame of the Bimini. “Tomorrow, com-see…” another day passes.

I go to the office to see Santo but Tony is there instead. Tony comes and looks at the crack and says “Ees too theen. See Franco tomorrow, over dare in ze bianco building.”
“What that white block with the three windows?”
“Si, bianco.”

The next morning, I pack up the laundry into my rucksack and head off a mile through town to the laundrette I picked out on Google Maps. I stop at Franco’s “Si, he no here. You com tomorrow.”

I return to Pantelisa with fresh and fragrant bed linen. One job ticked off.

The part arrives for the mast and I collect it from the office and contact Luigi who has agreed to go up the mast and fix it. “Si, I come Saturday.”

Saturday comes and the part is fixed after an hour and a half stint for Luigi at the top of the mast in the Sicilian breeze. Second Job ticked off.

Whilst checking my messages out on the deck a young French guy wonders up the pontoon and asks if I am going to Africa and could he have a lift. The answer was no, Gibraltar, and I’ll ask the owner and skipper if it’s OK and let him know.

It turns out it’s OK with everyone and I let him know to come in a week. He turns up an hour later with his rucksack and guitar. He’s been sleeping on the beach so I invite him to use a cabin for the week: my solitude interrupted.

The next day, Julien says he’s going to Etna and do I want to go. I look up at the peak. I see the snow and think of my flip-flops.
“No thanks. You go and let me know if it’s worth it.”

Etna: €30 Cable Car; €15 Bus and €9 Jeep to the summit. You could probably save money by walking up from the cable car but it would take a couple of hours; more in flip-flops.

Checking with Thomas the new skipper about provisions, he says get what you want and we’ll need about 100 litres of water… The store that Toni pointed out is three kilometres away. Apparently, they deliver. Problem solved… until I get there and they tell me they don’t “Ees no problem. When you ready, you com and I call taxi.” Fair enough. I match what’s on my list with what they have, leaving a quarter of my shopping list unsatisfied. I leave the water. I’ll get that later.

The chap who offered to phone a taxi is no longer visible. I consider pushing the shopping trolley three kilometres back to the boat but it would be a rough ride over the cobbles in the port. I attempt communication with a non-english speaking woman. She phones a taxi number using my phone and hands it back to me with a puzzled look. I dial the number again “You have insufficient credit for international calls, please top up your…” I hang up. The woman gets help from the attendant retrieving trolleys in the car park. He doesn’t speak English either. “I take machine. Twenty hours.” flashing his outstretched fingers twice, indicating twenty.
“You mean twenty minutes?”
“Si, twenty hours.”

I can wait twenty minutes so I agree and he disappears to retrieve a beaten up Fiat 127. More like twenty seconds. He takes me back to the marina and I sort out ten euros as a token of my gratitude.
“No ten hours! twenty hours!”
Ah, I get it… I hand over another ten euros. It was still worth every penny. Third job ticked off.

There’s a different guy in the office. Not Santo, Tony or Giuseppe. I didn’t catch his name. He speaks a little English. I show him a photo of a ten litre water bottle and ask him where I can get them. “Ees very far. Need taxi.”

I message Luigi to see if he can help fetch water “I haff water on boat. You can haff. I com Friday.”

Friday comes and he has 40 litres in 2 litre bottles to add to the 30 litres already found in storage on Pantelisa. That would do, there’s plenty in the tank we can use for tea coffee and cooking, and it tastes clean. Fourth job ticked off.

I see Franco at the ‘bianco’ building. He finds me a piece of pipe to strengthen the bimini frame but he can only fix it if I bring it in. The bimini frame looks like a giant metal puzzle and I have no tools or person to attempt a repair. The pipe is meant to go inside and then riveted in place but the insert is too narrow to be tight and too short to restrict movement. There has to be another solution. I decide to deal with it Saturday when Thomas is due…

Warship

We were three or four hours into our 20 litres. Less than 2 gallons left, in old money. Wind was forecast for the afternoon but hadn’t come out of hiding yet, so we plodded on at reduced revs to conserve fuel. Dolphins came to cheer us on and went on their merry way. We needed more wind or more fuel, either would do: we weren’t fussy. The forecasted wind hadn’t come and there was no hint of any on the horizon either.

Almost dead ahead, just off the port bow coming towards us, a tall thin vessel was heading our way.

“Looks like a sailing vessel.” I said but the AIS indicates it’s further away and much larger than I think. Toni checks the AIS. It has the name “ITS Alliance” but little other detail. He shrugs and says “They can only say no…” and goes below to the VHF.

Above the murmur of the engine, I hear only the response from the vessel.

“This is Italian Military Ship Alliance!…”

We’ve gone and hailed a warship?

Toni is a pretty good English speaker but the Italian radio operator was having trouble taking down details so I was conscripted as Pantelisa’s own radio operator.

“What is it you require?”

I relay Toni’s request, “Eighty to a hundred litres of diesel, to make the port of Catania.”

“Eighty two hundred litres of diesel?”

“Negative, one hundred litres of diesel.”

Then we go through a series of bureaucratic questions, not my favourite topic; I prefer ones on science or eighties pop-music…

The phonetic alphabet was a distant memory from my early days in the Air Training Corps back in 1978, rekindled by living on Glee in St Martin on the VHF. While I’m pretty fluent in reciting it sequentially, random order is a bit more of a challenge. What sounds like deliberate measured pace and clarity over the VHF hides frantic memory retrieval activity in my neurons “Paul: papa… alpha… uniform… lima. The port of Fethiye: foxtrot… oscar…” etc. After the information is relayed we’re asked to stand by.

“Shall we heave to?”

“Please, stand by…”

We maintain our course and speed of 4 knots and watch Alliance pass a half a mile away on our starboard beam at 5 knots. Looking at the AIS, we see Alliance begin to change course to round on our stern but she’s only doing 5 knots and she is now three quarters of a mile away. We cut the engine and drop our sails. If we were receiving assistance we wanted it before dark.

The VHF hailed from below. “Please stop your engines and everyone stand clear on the bow.”

We shuffle over to the bow and watch the orange rigid inflatable boat (RIB) get lowered over their port side and into the water.

The RIB took off on a wide arc and slowly spiralled toward us. We were being checked out. There were four or five men, one clearly silhouetted displaying a machine gun. I made sure my hands were clearly visible from a distance. The RIB came along our port side.

“We have one hundred litres of diesel for you.”

“Grazie Mille, how much do we owe you?” as we were hauling the jerry cans onboard

“Nothing, eez free!”

Toni threw the crew a Swiss army knife for their skipper as small token of gratitude and, with that, they sped off back toward Alliance with a friendly wave.

While Toni and Rolf were filling the tank from the new stock of jerry cans, I went to the VHF to express our gratitude. The radio operator said it was no problem and that instead of going to Catania, we should head to what I thought I heard as “Kintos.” I thanked him and searched in vain on the plotter for Kintos. If anything was closer than Catania, it wasn’t by much. It didn’t matter, we were set on Catania and we now had enough fuel to make it.

Neptune had come through after all, delivering a public vessel out of the blue right on our course. We toasted his health and that of the Italian Navy and we were on our way once again with over thirty hours of fuel and about the same amount of journey time to go. We were still cutting it fine.

Day five! This would be our last day before arrival at Catania so we stopped the engine for the opportunity for a blue water swim. The mainsail was still up and even with this asthmatic breathe of wind, we were breezing along at a knot and half so we made sure there was at least one of us still aboard and took turns for a swim.

The sea wasn’t particularly warm but then not as paralysingly cold as the English Channel. It’s a spooky experience seeing pure blue all the way down; nothing. Not even fish. Like flying in a second sky.

We’d had the fishing line out for days but nothing. Apart from the dolphins, this sea seemed pretty barren but the most disturbing part about it was the volume of plastic fragments suspended in the water: a plastic minestrone. Worse still, we don’t seem to be addressing the issue at all and the packaging assault on nature continues unabated…

I take an early nap and awake healed over to port. We have wind and the engine is off! Better late than never. I venture out into the cockpit. Rolf is asleep below and Toni is on watch. Pretty soon Toni turns in and, as he goes below, tells me to look out for small fishing boats, that wont show on AIS, as we near the shore. And so it’s just me in the cockpit. Five minutes later the wind eases and the sails flail around in the dying breeze. I wait a minute to see if it’s a temporary lull but no, I start the engine, furl the genoa, and tighten the main sheet. I’m familiar with this configuration by now.

Eyes peeled for small boats against the distant lights of the shoreline, I’m unable to concentrate on reading the kindle. Twenty miles to go at five knots. Four hours. Gets us into Catania at 07:30. the vessels that were around us when Toni retired had disappeared astern. Nothing on AIS apart from a cluster in the harbour. My time is spent moving from side to side like a dog in a car waiting for his master to return from the supermarket. The feeling of responsibility slowly mounts as we get closer in.

There is a dotted red line on the plotter about seven miles from shore that should coincide with daybreak. A good time to awaken the skipper I reckon.

Daybreak. Toni has a friend in the marina at Porto Di Catania. Luigi answers the call and alerts Santos, the harbour master, that we are on our way in . An hour or so later, Santos waves us into a vacant berth.

Catania. Sunday morning. Hallelujah…