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 here 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 was cloudy and wavy. The waves were not as large as they were two days ago but still they caused a substantial roll. The wind was mild, 10-15 knots from the WSW, pushing us. We were 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 did not want to go fast. I wanted to arrive to the Strait not earlier than tomorrow morning and not during the night.
By noon I was very hungry and I made an omelet with the leftover pasta with tuna. The bread from Ustica was still very good. Replacing the old radio with the new CD player was a very good idea. I was now sailing slowly and majestically to the tune of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. This was a far cry from the usual scratchy sounds from local radio stations or from whiny moist tapes. The sun came out again.
In the early afternoon, a dark low cloud came very close while the wind picked up and changed direction now coming from the SSW. I reduced the jib in preparation for a squall. Two small dolphins came and started playing with the boat. These were the first dolphins we saw on this trip. Too bad Lewis was not here to see them. Unfortunately they soon got bored and moved on. The dark cloud came closer but only its edge caught up with us. It rained but not as hard as yesterday and only for a short while. The cloud moved away to the NW. When it was a few miles away I noticed 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 died out and there was glorious sunshine. I had not seen such an intense sunshine since Malta. A small brown bird with white speckles circled Thetis several times. Slowly it descended and landed on the sprayhood right next to me. It had a long black beak and seemed exhausted. I stayed still and it stared at me without moving. We spent about ½ hour staring at each other. Maybe it was hungry. I slowly lowered myself to the cabin to get it something to eat. It did not move from the spray hood. I got a cracker and started coming up slowly. It took off, circled the boat, and landed again right on the anchor. I tossed it the cracker. It did not move. It mostly stayed on the bow with an occasional flight around the boat. This went on for the next few hours, until we approached the island Alicudi. It then took off for good and flew away towards the island.
There was practically no wind by 6:00 PM. We were motoring very slowly but the GPS indicated that the velocity made good was 6 knots which meant that we would be reaching the Strait at night. I reduced further the engine speed to 1500 RPM which lowered the boat’s speed to 4.6 knots (according to the GPS). This reading was very credible because we were already lined up with Alicudi which would not had been possible if we were moving over ground at the speed of 4 knots which was shown on the knot meter. There must had been a strong current pushing us at over 2 knots.
Supper was “linguine con saltsa ala Thetis numero 3,” this was accompanied with two glasses of red wine from the Agio Oros (Mt. Athos). It was a most beautiful night, a magical night! It was calm with only the gentlest of motions, there was no moon but all the stars were shining with extraordinary brilliance. We were amidst the infamous Aeolian islands. Behind us were 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 was the north coast of Sicily. Straight ahead there were the lights of Isola di Lipari, and then of Isola di Vulcano (an active volcano). The view was 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 had 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 had been an active night! The weather was 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 were approaching the Stretto di Messina the amount of traffic increased. 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 tried to imagine how this peaceful sea must had been 3 nights ago when the gales here were of force 10.
Dawn was gorgeous: golden iridescent clouds with deep azure sky over the rosy mountains of Calabria. The sea was getting choppy and the wind was increasing to 18 - 20 knots, against us, of course. After the sun rose the magic was gone. Everything now was in a light haze, and appeared to be further away then it was just a few minutes ago. The water was very heavily polluted and had an oily color. Thetis was fighting both the waves and the wind with 7 M from the Strait. There was considerable amount of spray but Pavlakis - Παυλάκης, the sprayhood was taking the worse of it. There were now many ships coming and going to and from the Strait. Well the honeymoon of easy going was over, now things were getting serious. Heikell warns of extremely high and violent gusts blowing up and down the Strait. Since the wind was definitely contrary and the sails had no effect, when we were 2 M away I lowered the main sail and furled the genoa. This way I would not have to risk sail damage. I put on the storm gear.
The wind increased to 35 knots (force 8) and the waves became more and more confused. The engine was now laboring as we were getting closer to the strait. There was a very strong contrary current in addition to the wind and the waves. We were moving at a snail’s speed, while we were dodging monster ships which were overtaking us oblivious to our presence. All of a sudden the engine sputtered and lost RPM. After a few seconds it recovered. I tried to increase the engine speed but every time I did so the engine sputtered. We continued in this fashion, low RPM, sputtering engine, gale force winds, large confused waves, and a current. If I were to lose the engine, I would have to somehow sail out of this mess. There would be no way to head into the wind long enough to raise the main, it would rip to ribbons. All I may be able to do would be to open a little genoa and head away from the Strait. I kept my fingers crossed.
Slowly, ever so slowly, we entered the strait. This was truly the “Charybdis” of the Odyssey. The only way that I can describe the turbulent water is that we were a little paper boat and had just been tossed into a boiling cauldron. I had never experienced anything like this before. Even if the engine was working properly, this would had been dangerous, but now... We were moving with a real speed of no more than 2 knots and the engine was sputtering more and more frequently. Several times it almost stoped and slowly recovered. If it were to fail here we could be lost. I steered an inefficient course, but one that would 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 was doubtful.
Slowly, meter by meter, we gained ground. The little engine, although crippled, soldiered on. We were now at last past the actual Strait. We entered the Strait at 8:45, it was now 11:00, the total distance covered during this time was 4 M! We were only 6.5 M from Reggio di Calabria, the nearest safe harbor. The sea was still rough but less turbulent, it was, let us say, just plain rough. The current and the wind were still strong and opposing us. On and on we went. The harbor was very hard to distinguish. The GPS told me we were right there but, even with the binoculars I could not see its entrance. I finally saw it when we are less than 200 m away. We entered the harbor at 12:15 with the engine still sputtering.
As luck would have it, there was 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 had enough power to compensate for the strong winds with no one to even hold a line. I entered 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 had 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 was pushed sideways by the wind. So I went stern-to, where at least I was near the engine controls, not that they were very effective anymore. I stopped the motion of the boat and managed to hold on to another boat and tie a temporary line to it. As I was about to fish the mooring line from the dock with the boat hook, two gentleman came and helped me (the air show was over by then). One was badly dressed, unshaven and Italian but spoke quite passable Greek. The other was well-dressed in yachty clothes with a very trim beard. He was Dutch and his mate explained (in Greek) that he is constantly drunk. They helped me secure the boat and deployed the passarella (gangplank). I then discovered that the autopilot actuator was stuck in its stud and could not be removed. We had come 125.9 M from Ustica.
I went ashore and called my wife Alice in Washington, D.C. and my brother Nikos in Athens. It was very hard to describe how I felt. I was in a daze, this must be how soldiers returning from a battle must feel like. I was also extremely tired and hungry. After I got back to the boat, I had a bite to eat and fell asleep.
In the evening I went to the town which is about a 30 minute walk from the harbor. It was packed with people, mostly young, strolling in their Sunday afternoon promenade. There were many clothing and fashion stores, and ice cream parlors. Everyone was eating an ice cream. I walked back to the port. At the port entrance I had noticed a pizza place. I went there and ordered a pizza. Next to me was a table with four Germans. They addressed me and asked me if I too was with a yacht. They had just come today with a sailing yacht from Zakynthos and were 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 was very bad. Gales, and thunderstorms, with force 8 winds. It did not look that I would be leaving too soon.