This web page describes the fifth leg of a 7 week trip with S/Y Thetis in 1996 from Greece to Malta, Sardinia, Ustica, and Calabria in Italy, and back to Greece. The leg described is the solo passage from Ustica, a small island north of Sicily to Reggio Calabria via the Strait of Messina. It is illustrated with maps and photographs, also included are some historical and geographical descriptions of the places visited as well as several links to other related web sites.
Saturday October 12, 1996 Day 30
I slept like a log! I did not wake up until 7:00. After coffee I started the preparations for departure. I untied some of the lines and made μπιντένια (loop them back to them selves) of the rest. Just as I was ready to cast off, guess who shows up to see me off: my friend “il Capitano …” We cast off at 8:20. It is cloudy and wavy. The waves are not as large as they were two days ago but they still cause a substantial roll. The wind is mild, 10-15 knots from the WSW, pushing us. We are sailing with the main reduced to the 2nd reef and a small amount of jib at the very sedate speed of 3.5 - 4 knots because I do not want to go fast. I want to arrive to the Strait not earlier than tomorrow morning and not during the night.
By noon I am very hungry and I make an omelet with the leftover pasta with tuna. The bread from Ustica is still very good. Replacing the old radio with the new CD player was a very good idea. I am now sailing slowly and majestically to the tune of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. This is a far cry from the usual scratchy sounds from local radio stations or from whiny moist tapes. The sun comes out again.
In the early afternoon, a dark low cloud comes very close while the wind picks up and changes direction now coming from the SSW. I reduce the jib in preparation for a squall. Two small dolphins come and start playing with the boat. These are the first dolphins we see on this trip. Too bad Lewis is not here to see them. Unfortunately they soon get bored and move on. The dark cloud comes closer but only its edge catches up with us. It rains but not as hard as yesterday and only for a short while. The cloud moves away to the NW. When it is a few miles away I notice a dark vortex moving from the cloud to the sea! I would hate to think the effect of that vortex on poor Thetis.
Later the wind dies out and there is glorious sunshine. I have not seen such an intense sunshine since Malta. A small brown bird with white speckles flies circling Thetis several times. Slowly it descends and lands on the sprayhood right next to me. It has a long black beak and seems exhausted. I stay still and it stares at me without moving. We spend about ½ hour staring at each other. Maybe it is hungry. I slowly lower myself to the cabin to get it something to eat. It does not move from the spray hood. I get a cracker and start coming up slowly. It takes off, circles the boat, and lands again right on the anchor. I toss it the cracker. It does not move. It mostly stays on the bow with an occasional flight around the boat. This goes on for the next few hours, until we approach the island Alicudi. It then takes off for good and flies away towards the island.
There is practically no wind by 6:00 PM. We are motoring very slowly but the GPS indicates that the velocity made good is 6 knots which means that we would be reaching the Strait at night. I reduce further the engine speed to 1500 RPM which lowers the boat’s speed to 4.6 knots (according to the GPS). This reading is very credible because we are already lined up with Alicudi which would not have been possible if we were moving over ground at the speed of 4 knots which was shown on the knot meter. There must be a strong current pushing us at over 2 knots.
Supper is “linguine con saltsa ala Thetis numero 3,” this is accompanied with two glasses of red wine from the Agio Oros (Mt. Athos). It is a most beautiful night, a magical night! It is calm with only the gentlest of motions, there is no moon but all the stars are shining with extraordinary brilliance. We are amidst the infamous Aeolian islands. Behind us are the few lights of Isola di Alicudi (an extinct volcano) to our left and slightly ahead also a few lights from Isola di Filicudi (another extinct volcano), I love these names, and to our right with lots of lights the north coast of Sicily. Straight ahead there are the lights of Isola di Lipari, and then of Isola di Vulcano (an active volcano). The view is gorgeous! I do not think I have ever had such an enchanting night at sea before. But, had I been here all by myself without the radar and the GPS and the excellent night binoculars, I could have panicked as the distances on such a clear night can be very deceptive and one can convince himself that he is heading straight toward the land a few hundred meters away, when in fact the land is miles away.
Sunday October 13, 1996 Day 31
It has been an active night! The weather is still very good and last night’s weather report was good. The whole coast of Sicily has many lights and at times it is hard to distinguish between land-based lights and ship’s lights. One has to be very vigilant when traveling at night so close to land. We crossed paths with several ships: two very close, as the channel between Isola di Vulcano and Cape Milazzo is narrow. Also as we are approaching the Stretto di Messina the amount of traffic increases. This whole area is described by Heikell in his Italian Waters Pilot as the “Eolian Triangle,” the Mediterranean equivalent to the Bermuda Triangle, because of the numbers of boats lost and its large number of violent and unpredictable gales. I try to imagine how this peaceful sea must have been 3 nights ago when the gales here were of force 10.
Dawn is gorgeous: golden iridescent clouds with deep azure sky over the rosy mountains of Calabria. The sea is getting choppy and the wind is increasing to 18 - 20 knots, against us, of course. After the sun rises the magic is gone. Everything now is in a light haze, and appears to be further away then it was just a few minutes ago. The water is very heavily polluted and has an oily color. Thetis is fighting both the waves and the wind with 7 M from the Strait. There is considerable amount of spray but Pavlakis - Παυλάκης, the sprayhood is taking the worse of it. There are now many ships coming and going to and from the Strait. Well the honeymoon of easy going is over, now things are getting serious. Heikell warns of extremely high and violent gusts blowing up and down the Strait. Since the wind is definitely contrary and the sails have no effect, when we are 2 M away I lower the main sail and furl the genoa. This way I will not have to risk sail damage. I put on the storm gear.
The wind increases to 35 knots (force 8) and the waves become more and more confused. The engine is now laboring as we are getting closer to the strait. There is a very strong contrary current in addition to the wind and the waves. We are moving at a snail’s speed, while we are dodging monster ships which are overtaking us oblivious to our presence. All of a sudden the engine sputters and loses RPM. After a few seconds it recovers. I try to increase the engine speed but every time I do so the engine sputters. We continue in this fashion, low RPM, sputtering engine, gale force winds, large confused waves, and a current. If I lose the engine, I will have to somehow sail out of this mess. There will be no way to stay headed into the wind long enough to raise the main, it will rip to ribbons. All I may be able to do will be to open a little genoa and head away from the Strait. I keep my fingers crossed.
Slowly, ever so slowly, we enter the strait. This is truly the “Charybdis” of the Odyssey. The only way that I can describe the turbulent water is that we are a little paper boat and have just been tossed into a boiling cauldron. I have never experienced anything like this before. Even if the engine was working properly, this would have been dangerous, but now... We are moving with a real speed of no more than 2 knots and the engine is sputtering more and more frequently. Several times it almost stops and slowly recovers. If it fails here we could be lost. I steer an inefficient course, but one that will allow me the greatest amount of time to do something in the case of an engine failure, but the strait is so narrow that the whole proposition is doubtful.
Slowly, meter by meter, we gain ground. The little engine, although crippled, soldiers on. We are now at last past the actual Strait. We entered the Strait at 8:45, it is now 11:00, the total distance covered during this time is 4 M! We are only 6.5 M from Reggio di Calabria, the nearest safe harbor. The sea is still rough but less turbulent, it is, let us say, just plain rough. The current and the wind are still strong and opposing us. On and on we go. The harbor is very hard to distinguish. The GPS tells me we are right there but, even with the binoculars I cannot see its entrance. I finally see it when we are less than 200 m away. We enter the harbor at 12:15 with the engine still sputtering.
As luck would have it, there is a most impressive air show going on with jet fighters flying in various formations low over the harbor emitting colorful exhausts. Most people were totally absorbed with watching the show while poor Thetis hardly has enough power to compensate for the strong winds with no one to even hold a line. I enter the inner yacht harbor [38° 07.6' N 15° 39.1' E]. No anchoring is allowed, they have permanent moorings instead. One has to get to the dock, take the mooring, and tie the boat. The easiest would have been to go bows-to, but it would be very hard to jump ashore, grab the mooring line, and jump back into the boat while it is pushed sideways by the wind. So I go stern too, where at least I am near the engine controls, not that they are very effective anymore. I stop the motion of the boat and manage to hold on to another boat and tie a temporary line to it. As I am about to fish the mooring line from the dock with the boat hook, two gentleman come and help me (the air show was over by then). One is badly dressed, unshaven and Italian but speaks quite passable Greek. The other is well-dressed in yachty clothes with a very trim beard. He is Dutch and his mate explains (in Greek) that he is constantly drunk. They help me secure the boat and deploy the passarella (gangplank). I then discover that the autopilot actuator is stuck in its stud and cannot be removed. We had come 125.9 M from Ustica.
I go ashore and call my wife Alice in Washington, D.C. and my brother Nikos in Athens. It is very hard to describe how I feel. I am in a daze, this must be how soldiers returning from a battle must feel like. I am also extremely tired and hungry. After I get back to the boat, I have a bite to eat and fall asleep.
In the evening I go to the town which is about a 30 minute walk from the harbor. It is packed with people, mostly young, strolling in their Sunday afternoon promenade. There are many clothing and fashion stores, and ice cream parlors. Everyone is eating an ice cream. I walk back to the port. At the port entrance I had noticed a pizza place. I go there and order a pizza. Next to me is a table with four Germans. They address me and ask me if I too am with a yacht. They had just come today with a sailing yacht from Zakynthos and are heading for Sardinia and the Balearics. They had a force 7 wind all the way, with large seas.
Back onboard I listened to the weather broadcast before calling it a day. It is very bad. Gales, and thunderstorms, with force 8 winds. It does not look that I will be leaving too soon.