Travels with S/Y Thetis


Thetis only

1996: Cagliari to Ustica

This web page describes the fourth 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 Cagliari in Sardinia to Ustica, a small island north of Sicily. 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.

Route from Sardinia to Ustica
Route from Sardinia to Ustica

Wednesday October 9, 1996 Day 27

I was woken up by the new alarm at 6:15 so that I can listen to the morning Italian weather forecast at 6:40. I now have some terminology down, some from the Italian Waters Pilot, and some from notes from Tony. It is still hard to distinguish the wind direction as the announcer spoke rather fast and the reception was not very good. It seemed that there were sporadic thunderstorms (temporali) and winds up to force 7 which will later diminish to 6. This was not very different from last night’s forecast. Here, in the harbor, it was calm and the wind was down. I was not sure what to do. I will wait until daybreak and see. At any rate I had made up my mind to take the Messina straight route.

I walked ashore and called my brother Nikos. The weather in Greece was bad, he saw the depression on his computer. It was indeed east of Sardinia and it was moving towards the East. Maybe I could take advantage of the NW winds and still stay west of the weather system. I wished I could receive more comprehensive weather information and that I knew more on how to interpret the big picture.

Tony, who knows now how anxious I was to leave, came and told me that he spoke with the captain of the ferryboat that just came into the harbor from Naples. They encountered just force 5 NW winds east of Sardinia. With this extra information I decided to go. Before leaving, however, I wanted to re-route the reefing lines which were not installed correctly last spring. Fixing them would make it easier to reef the main sail in a hurry. I had some difficulty since I had never led lines through either the mast or the boom before but after some time I complete the task successfully.

All my Cagliari friends came to see me off. Bob, Lydia, Tony, Allen (the Swiss veterinarian student), his wife, their little daughter, and the French couple on their way to Gibraltar for an Atlantic, crossing. Bob and Allen untied my lines and I cast off at 11:30 AM. I motored to the harbor entrance. The knot meter was not working. I was afraid that I may have not connected it right when I was re-wiring the instrument power but after removing the instrument cover I could see no connection problem. I checked the transducer under the boat. It seemed to be somewhat rotated. I straighten it and now everything was working properly. What a relief! I turned the boat towards the wind and with some difficulty due to the strong gusts, I raised the main sail and set it to the 2nd reef. I tried to install the 3rd batten which was missing but I was not able to do so with the gusts. I unrolled a small amount of the genoa and exited the harbor. We were heading toward the Isola di Ustica, 190 nM due east.

We were zipping at 7-7.5 knots. The wind increased to 30 knots and then to 35 and then to almost 40 with gusts exceeding 50 (34-40 knots is force 8, 41-47 is force 9, and 48-55 is 10)! We were now moving at the breath taking speed of 8 knots. The waves were large, fortunately we were running with the waves which were on our quarter so it was a relatively comfortable ride. I wanted to reduce the main to the third reef but I did not dare to turn the boat against this kind of wind. I t like I had grabbed a tiger by the tail and if I were to let it go it would be the end of me. This was the strongest wind that I had ever sailed with. I managed, with the help of the winch, to reduce the genoa. Considering the violence of the gusts, we were really, moving very nicely, occasionally surfing to over 8 knots (the hull speed of Thetis is 8.1 knots).

At 3:00 PM, after clearing Cape Carbonara, the wind suddenly died out completely. The genoa was now hanging under its own weight. I rolled it in. We were getting nowhere. I started the engine and motor-sailed. A little later I herd a “Securité” on the VHF. They were giving out in fast Italian and extremely slow English a Gale warning. Right at Sicily, where I was actually going, there were strong gales, with thunderstorms, and winds of up to force 10. Here there was no wind at all. I was contemplating turning back but I did not want to face the winds I recently experienced again, this time straight against me. I also reasoned that I was 150 nM away from Sicily, moving slowly, so that by the time I got there the storms must have moved east. Reasoning is, of course, all to the good, but those gale warnings coming now every ½ hour were very unnerving.

In the evening I prepared dinner using a packaged Knor risotto alla Milanese. It was very hard to cook because of the motion. While there was no wind, the waves were enormous, they towered over Thetis, they had to be at least 10 m. Again, thank goodness they were at our quarter and not against us. The risotto was tasty but extremely salty, I forced myself to eat most of it but I could not finish it. As I was eating a new weather update was being broadcasted. It was now only force 9 near Sicily and at Calabria, while at the Ionian it was just force 7. By 8:00 AM tomorrow it was supposed to be down to force 6 in Sicily. The whole weather system was moving SE. As I wanted to make absolutely sure that I would not encounter even its fringe, I slowed down the motor.

Now a new “Securité” comes over the VHF. It seems that, as if the weather is not enough, the Italian navy are having an exercise with live ammunition in several parts of Sardinia. They give the coordinates (in Italian of course) of these areas. I painfully write them down and check them on the charts. At least we are nowhere near them and are moving further away.

During the night the sky was full of lightning from the West, but I heard no thunder, so the lightning had to be far away, I hoped. At 11:30 PM the wind picked up a little. I reduced, as a precaution, the main to the third reef and turned off the engine. I also managed to install the missing batten. The wind was now 9-12 knots from the NW, and Thetis was sailing at the breathtaking speed of 2 knots. This I hope was slow enough to avoid the storm. There was still a lot of lightning and I had to admit that I was a little scared. Yet where we were all the stars are out, the sky was brilliant, and the waves had become appreciably smaller. It was actually a lovely night (other than the scary distant lightning). If I were to increase the sail area we would move at a very respectable speed, but I did not dare to do so.

Thursday October 10, 1996 Day 28

One of the reservations I have had about single handling over long distances has been my fear of lack of sleep and the dangers of exhaustion. To my great surprise, this my first solo night, I managed to sleep rather well. I would spend about 5 minutes in the cockpit staring all around for traffic, then I would go down to the cabin and look for a few minutes at the radar screen, over several distance scales. The radar was left continuously on all night and it was set to sound its alarm if any target appeared within 12 nM. Having satisfied myself that nothing was visible either by sight or by radar, I would set the alarm clock to ring 20 minutes later, and I would lye down in my cabin with the door open so that I could hear either a radar or an auto pilot alarm (it beeps when it cannot, for any reason, maintain a course). I would then sleep for 20 minutes until the alarm woke me up at which time I would repeat the cycle. I did this from midnight to 6:00 when I came fully awake because I saw two lights some distance behind the boat. It turned out they were stars but with the excitement I could not go back to sleep.

It is still dark. There are no more distant lightning flashes and the wind is still 10 - 15 knots from the SW. I unroll more of the genoa and we are now moving at 3.5 to 4 knots. I listen to the AM radio weather forecast in Italian and another “Securité” at 7:30. They are still warning of gales (“Aviso di Burasca”) and thunderstorms near the Sicilian and Calabrian coasts, but the winds are now predicted to be force 7 and not the 9 and 10’s of yesterday. They also forecast an attenuation of the wind and that the storm system will move further to the SE. The winds here are very light and the sky is clear but I can see as the day breaks some distant dark clouds. I change my course slightly to the North to avoid the clouds, just in case…

By 8:45 the sky was very clear and there was a brilliant sunshine and still very little light wind. I opened more of the genoa but we were only making 3.5 knots and we were still 110 nM away from Ustica. I kept my fingers crossed. It turned out to be a most lovely day, sunny, warm, crystal clear visibility, and blue sky. The sea, while not quite rough, had large swells which must be caused by yesterday’s tempest. The wind was down to 8 - 13 knots so while we were sailing we were sailing at a maximum speed of 3.5 knots. This slow sailing with the wind from behind was most tiresome and not very pleasant because the sails were flapping and needed almost constant adjustments. All gale warnings from the VHF had either ceased or I was out of the transmitters’ range and did not receive them.

By evening the wind died out completely and I had to start the engine as I was getting nowhere. No flashes were visible tonight although there were a few scattered clouds, and the sea was much calmer. I prepared supper: pasta with tuna and capers. It was so much better than yesterday’s supper, and I ate it with great gusto since I was starving. Altogether a most pleasant night. I stayed awake until 10:30 to listen to the AM radio weather report but I was unable to receive it. We were now 66 nM away from Ustica. Since there was nothing else to do and I was rather sleepy, I started the 20 minute sleep cycles.

Friday October 11, 1996 Day 29

In the morning the weather was almost clear, just some small clouds, and there was no wind while we were motoring towards Ustica now 18 nM away. I listen to the weather on the AM radio at 6:30. I must be getting better in understanding the Italian forecasts. Well, according to my understanding, in the Sicilian-Tyrrhenian sea we have 4-3 on the Beaufort Scale NE with possible showers and in the Ionian 4-5 NE.

[Map of Ustica] At 6:45 land was sighted! It was still dark and the island appeared as a dark shadow outlined by the rising sun still obscured by it. Day-light came quickly. I was somewhat nervous about entering a strange harbor all by myself. I prepared the fenders on both sides, two stern lines, and an extra one for the bow, just in case we were to go sideways. I prepared the anchor and installed the second anchor control so that if we go stern-to I can control the anchor line from either the bow or from the cockpit. I kept my fingers crossed.

It is 9:00 and it is a most beautiful morning. We enter the harbor of Ustica [38° 42.5' N 13° 11.8' E] slowly. There is another large yacht with a German flag docked sideways. I approach cautiously, there is plenty of room. Somebody on the pier is waving to me to come sideways in front of the German boat. I do not like the sideways docking, especially after my recent experience in Cagliari. I am afraid that in a case of a strong blow the fenders could blow out. Also it is much easier for rats to come aboard when the boat is sideways. On the other hand, there is no wind, the sea is perfectly calm, and according to the Italian Waters Pilot the bottom here is foul and the last thing I want to deal with, all by myself, is a snagged anchor. So I decide to come sideways, I wave to the man that I have understood him and head out of the harbor, to shift all the fenders to one side of the boat. We come back nice and slowly. I put the engine in neutral and go to the bow, and while the boat is slowly drifting almost parallel to the pier I toss the bow line to the waiting gentleman who ties it to a ring. I fend the boat away from the pier, take the stern line and jump ashore. My first solo long distance crossing is over!

[Photo of Ustica Harbor]
The Harbor of Ustica

The gentleman is delighted that this is a real Greek boat, from Greece, with a Greek aboard. He does not remember another Greek boat in Ustica. He is also very impressed that I am all alone coming all the way from Sardinia. He tells me that two days ago the weather here was terrible and further East near Stromboli two sail boats were sunk, one completely lost with two people aboard. I ask him about diesel fuel. There is a gas station on the other side of the harbor, but it appears to be closed. He thinks that it only opens early in the morning and it has already closed for the day. This is not so good because I want to leave early tomorrow before the next weather system catches up with me. After he leaves, I retie the front line, add two extra lines, and two spring lines. Now Thetis is secure for all weather except for a Levanter (East wind) which is considered rare here.

I talk to the Germans. They are charterers but they have subscribed to a German weather extended forecast service which they call long distance on the phone. They will be getting a new report in about two hours which they will be glad to share it with me.

[Photo of a street in Ustica]
A street in Ustica

I go ashore and call my mother Pitsa, and walk to the gas station just to make sure. It has a sign that says it will open at 2:00 PM. The town is some distance uphill from the harbor, I walk up to do some light shopping. It is a very sweet little town in an unassuming sort of way. There are no “souvenir” stores, no “boutiques” etc. Just a small provincial town in a small island. Diving seems to be the main touristic activity. There are two dive shops at the harbor and at least three diving boats. Other than these and a single hotel there is no further evidence of touristic activity. Now must be the off season for tourists since all of these places are shut, and it could very well be that I am the only tourist in town. Very refreshing!

I walk in the narrow streets and find the bank and change some money, then I start looking for camping gaz to no avail. Heikell states that there is camping gaz in both Cagliari and Ustica. I guess his information in the Italian Waters Pilot is less reliable than in the Greek Waters Pilot which I have never found to be wrong. This is bad because if I run out of gas there will be no more morning coffee such as it is (the Arab coffee I got in Cagliari has an offensive spicy taste), or evening hot meals. I buy some vegetables and fruits, bread, and a slice of pizza for a snack. While I am eating the pizza on a bench overlooking the harbor I hear a loud voice: “Capitano, Capitano Greco.” It is my friend, the old gentleman from the dock. He wants to tell me that he has misinformed me. The gas station opens at 2:00 and stays open until 4:00 PM. I thank him for his kindness and walk downhill to the boat.

The German skipper comes aboard with his hand-written weather forecast. It is amazing in its detail. It covers everything until Wednesday October 16. We exchange some pleasantries and I help them cast off their lines as they are leaving for Palermo. Sure enough, just as the German report predicted, a heavy shower comes in the early afternoon while I am having lunch. It drenches everything. Fortunately, anticipating the opening of the gas station, I had already siphoned the fuel to the tank and the jerry cans are ready to go. After the downpour I call Alice at 1:00 PM (7:00 AM Washington time). I really wished she was here, she would have loved this place.

At 2:00 I cart the cans across the harbor to the gas station and fill them. I call my colleague Pei at the office. It seems that there are several problem with EUTELSAT, but she is managing the situation so far.

[Photo of the lighthouse in Ustica]
The lighthouse in Ustica

Later I go for a long walk, past the town and into the countryside full of cacti. I am extremely stiff from the night I fended Thetis off the pier. It is a lovely island, and as the soil is freshly wet there are many nice smells. There are a number of country houses, some quite substantial. On the way back, as I am crossing the town square, I am hailed: “Senior Greco, Senior Capitano.” It is my friend again. He is at a bench with a number of his cronies. He introduces me as the “Capitano della barca vella Greca” (the captain of the Greek sail boat). He explains to them that I am all alone and sailing in Sicily. They are all very exited to meet a Greek from Greece, since “Greci e Siciliani, una faca, una raca” (Greek and Sicilians, same face same race). It is all very touching.

Back on the boat I take a cold shower since the downpour had cooled the solar water heater. As I am looking at myself in the mirror I see that I am full of black and blue marks from the stays where I was bracing myself that bad night in Cagliari when I was fending off Thetis. Later I called Nikos and then I went uphill to the town to eat. I found a small trattoria, there were only two other clients who after eyeing me all over asked if I was a “Tedesco” (German). “No, Greco.” Then they got all excited. Was I the Greek from the “barca vella?” They explained that actually they were all Greeks here, since that is their ancestry. They had heard about a Greek yacht arriving this morning. Was I really all alone? What was I doing? Where did I come from? From Cagliari? That far? etc. Once more the mantra “una faca…” The meal was excellent: spaghetti with a tomatoes pesto and fresh fish. All under $20 with the wine and the “aqua minerale.” As I take out my wallet to pay one of the clients grabs the bill. No way, I am their guest. Then the “patrone” gets out the grapa (a strong distillate) and we all toss to each other’s health, to our common ancestors, to favorable winds etc. I lost track.

Back to the boat, I change the bed sheets and, as it was getting cold, I closed the hatches and boarded the companion way. I changed to night clothes and slept in my cabin. It was a luxury to do so because last night, under way with the motor running, I was afraid of not hearing the radar alarm so I slept instead on the bench of the main cabin.