September 2013 : Sardinia, Sicily and the Aoelian Islands to Sibari, Southern Italy

This month has been the most sociable of the summer but also the most testing in terms of weather. We were hugely pleased , after the debacle of last year when we were unable to make rendezvous planned with friends, that we succeeded in meeting first Maggie and Bob, then Jean, exactly where and when planned. Unfortunately, we didn’t manage to provide very good weather for them. Even before we left Sardinia at the end of August the weather had begun to have an end of summer feel to it and for much of September we experienced a temperamental period of squally thunderstorms interspersed with bouts of summer sunshine.

We covered 494 miles this month, bringing our total for the year to 1,973.

There were the usual dilemmas and compromises over the timing of the 155 mile passage from Sardinia to Sicily – not enough wind when we wanted to leave, but strong adverse winds due to kick in for several days imminently. We needed to get going not only to make our rendezvous in Sicily but also because our timetable was now inexorably heading towards our winter destination. We opted to leave early and move fast to get in before the dread easterlies. Leaving at 4.45am we kept up a good pace – accompanied by a long bank of angry looking clouds. We saw little shipping, but overnight observed a mysterious and scary set of lights which suddenly appeared – seven in all – and then just as suddenly disappeared. Difficult to gauge how far off they were, we checked on radar but could find nothing. No one was able to suggest what these might have been – but they were extremely disconcerting. Having made very good time, we then realised that we were going to arrive too early, wanting to make our approach in daylight, not being sure what we might encounter in the way of fishing activity off the Egadi Islands (north west of Sicily). However, it was still dark as we approached the western-most island – Marettimo – when we were hit by a massive lightening squall with 30 knots of wind and torrential rain. Feeling like a sitting duck – the highest point for miles around – we put as much of our electronic equipment into the oven (Faraday cage) as possible. Not the most comfortable landfall – we found a reasonably protected inlet on the island of Favignana where we anchored and fell asleep. We woke to find ourselves in bright sunshine, surrounded by a fleet of small boats at anchor – their crews roasting in the sun.

We had little idea what to expect of Sicily – but anticipated it might be a tougher environment than the gentle cruising we had enjoyed in the Balearics and Sardinia. This proved right – anchorages were fewer and less secure or comfortable, and marinas were rough and ready and charging exorbitant prices. Mending nets in Favignana It seemed the fewer facilities provided, the more was charged. This was certainly true of the 'marina' in Favignana town which charged 60 euros for no water, no electricity and no showers. However, the town, overlooked by a hilltop fortress, was fascinating with its busy fishing harbour and museum of tuna processing. The economy of the Egadi Islands was based on the tuna industry – interesting but gory, and now thankfully stopped – though this had led to a sad decline in the population and economy of the islands.

While in Favignana Julia received news that her 93 year old father was very ill, so we set off immediately for Trapani a few miles to the east on the mainland of Sicily to make arrangements for a visit home for a few days. Bob and Maggie arrived while Julia was away – and amply took her place as crew. Here is Bob's report:

In early September Maggie (who last dinghy sailed with me 30 years ago) and I went sailing the north coast of Sicily with Julia and Chris in their yacht Aremiti.

Day 1: - We flew from Gatwick to Palermo, then after a 60 minute coach journey we met up with Chris and Aremiti in Trapani - a port on the west tip of the island situated on a promontory. Aremiti was berthed in a small single pontoon marina recommended by a Sicilian skipper they had met earlier in their trip. Chris settled us in, showed us our for-peak cabin and took us on a tour of the town. The old town is constructed on a grid system and on a narrow strip of land that gave us good views of the Mediterranean on both sides. Looking inside a church we happened upon our first wedding of the trip where one of the guests collapsed in a heap, whether from heat or alcohol we could not tell. Chris then treated us to a great meal on board, risotto with fresh prawns from the fish market just outside the marina The forecast for the next day had been for the wind to change from N / NE to SE, just right for us to sail the next day. However, when Chris checked in the evening the N/NE winds were predicted to hang around for longer than originally predicted.

Day 2: - Up and ashore for breakfast of coffee and croissant. Shopping for our evening meal, calamari looked like the best deal, so Maggie went for that. Chris, being Chris, does all the navigation electronically - a few flicks of his fingers on the chart-plotter and the passage for the day was planned with 4 way-points. We slipped our lines at around 10:30 to make our way NE and then E to Capo San Vito. We had to motor all the way and on arrival anchored outside the harbour away from the beach as boats are banned from anchoring within 300 meters of the beach. Dinghy down, explore ashore, very much a seaside town. Great church in an old Saracen fort, an amazing mixture of old and new art and artefacts, most unusual. No mention of St. Vito's dance anywhere? Back on board to gut the calamari. A fantastic evening meal, thanks, Maggie, and to bed.

Day 3: - Coffee and croissant, shopping and ready to sail. Scopello was our destination but we never made land. We ghosted along in the sun and a light breeze with the dinghy in tow until we slowed to 2.5 knots when we switched the engine on. Making ready to anchor in the shelter of two small islands Chris changed his mind because there were too many ribs and pleasure craft in the area to get inshore close enough. He decided to make for a beach but at this point we noticed a cloud over the mountain ahead and a few drops of rain. We started to clear the cockpit when Chris said “this is not going to be nice!” The heavens opened, the mountain disappeared, the shore disappeared, the yacht ahead of us disappeared and the wind speed hit 45 knots (welcome back to sailing Maggie). Chris kept Aremiti's head into wind. Then the thunder and lightning struck. Thunder that came with lightning that was quicker than you can say thunder and lightning. We turned north out to sea to run from the mini storm. After half an hour we could turn our heads back to watch. Most of the island was hidden in the storm. The only place we could see was Capo San Vito so we made our way back west. On the way Chris bailed out the dinghy and we watched a heavy squall out to sea. But it wasn't over for us. We made for our anchorage of the night before and dropped the hook a little way further out in 10 meters depth. The holding was good and all looked OK. As we anchored the rain came again, luckily no wind this time. The rain was so hard it flattened the sea. When it was all over we were wet through and the dinghy needed to be bailed out again - Chris vowed never to tow it again! A good supper aboard and to bed. We had a peaceful night.

Day 4: - With a 20 knot wind blowing from the north west we agreed to head straight for Terrasini almost directly to the east. It was small town, with an even smaller harbour, but close to the airport where Julia would arrive next day, her father now being on the mend. We sailed across the bay in good weather. As the harbour looked too shallow we made for a group of ribs outside the harbour and anchored sea side of them. As we did some of the younger Sicilian sea-lions and lionesses sunbathing aboard the ribs got up to see what was gong on, but soon settled down again. Some of the older Sicilians did really look like the sea-lions in San Francisco harbour, but the younger ones looked in good condition! I think the continued survival of the colony is assured. We took the dinghy ashore through the harbour which was packed full of ribs. There could be a problem for yachts cruising this coast if they wish to use harbours because they are so full of these ribs. We ate aboard in the evening, watched a fabulous sunset with aircraft flying into the airport, were treated to a firework display (must have been for someone's birthday) and a disco that went on until 03:30!

Day 5: - The catholic church in the middle of the town retaliated to the disco with eight rocket bombs and a peel of bells at 08:00 on the Sunday morning. We could see the rockets and then hear the bombs two seconds later. It reminded us how close the lightning and thunder was the day before. Maggie, Bob and skipper We went ashore, Chris to pick up Julia, and Maggie and I to have a look around the town which had a lovely square in front of the aforementioned church and we were treated to the delights of a marching band. When we finished in town Julia took snaps of us as we approached Aremiti in the dinghy and greeted us aboard. Chris set in the passage plan for Mondello and we set off. Initially we motored but then the wind got up enough for us to sail. I had another go on the helm and managed to get her up to 6.8 knots when, good skipper Chris suggested that I may like to sacrifice speed for direction! Fun over, we started to beat our way towards our destination. Eventually we had to turn the engine on to get round the headland into Mondello. We anchored on the east side of the bay, but were unable to find any evidence of the village until as night fell and the lights went on. We found a very lively sea side town and had a great meal on the balcony overlooking the harbour. The sea was flat calm for the return journey back to Aremiti.

Day 6: - All ashore in the dinghy for coffee, croissant and shopping. We went to the church to have a look round but there was a funeral taking place. Lots of people in bright colours and very casual wear. A swim off the boat and then on our way to Palermo. After anchoring among a group of two other British and one American cruising boats between two marinas we tootled ashore, finding one very welcoming, after being turned away from the other marina stuffed full of boats belonging to people with loads of money. At the White Bar we were served very good cocktails at very reasonable prices, yum. We had a very enjoyable tour around the old tuna factory, now a swanky events venue with improbable plastic thrones! Back aboard Julia made a very nice Salad Nicoise.

Day 7: - We upped anchor and headed first for a tour of Palermo harbour, impressive buildings on the foreshore and beyond. It is a large sprawling city hugging the rugged mountainous coastline. We then turned away heading for St. Nicola passing more amazing coastline. This marina was again very shallow. Chris crept in with about a metre under the keel. We moored bows to beyond the end of a pontoon, which we could only access via another boat. Showers were outside and there was no water or electricity. Pizzas were enjoyed in a restaurant garden up the hill.

Day 8: - The last day for Maggie and me. We sailed in a moderate breeze to our final destination, Cefalu.Cefalu from the West The city can be seen in all its majesty from way out to sea. The twin towered church rises above the medieval town underneath a massive rock. Anchoring off the old town proved to be uncomfortable due to a lumpy sea so we moved on around the headland anchoring for a last swim before we tied up in a marina recommended by the Sicilian skipper Chris and Julia met in the Egadi Islands. Ashore, in town, we sat at a bar to watch the sunset and a wedding photo-shoot arrived. The bride in white and the guests all in black, looked more like a funeral. We all loved the town and ate in front of the church to celebrate our last evening.

After Bob and Maggie left, we remained in Cefalu for the next couple of days getting ready for our next guest Jean. We rendezvoused in the magnificent Piazza di Duomo and walked round to the anchorage. We had just met up again with the little flotilla of cruising yachts mentioned by Bob – two British and one American - and a beach barbecue was planned. This was a fun occasion – it's been a long time since we've experienced that sort of cruising camaraderie.

We approached the Aeolians with some trepidation – in view both of previous Sailing Association experience and also the rather scary impression given by the pilot book in terms of a lack of safe anchorages or ports, and gales liable to blow up out of nowhere - especially given our recent unsettled squally weather. The forecast was quite good – strong westerlies for first couple of days, calming to a force 4 - which couldn't be better for our passage through from east to west - but also predicted big swells emanating from storms to the north which could make for uncomfortable if not untenable overnight stops.

We headed first for Filicudi one of the less visited of the islands, clearly visible from Cefalu. We had to motor most of the 40 miles without wind, starting under blue skies, but becoming increasingly overcast and gloomy. Stromboli came into hazy view - awaiting us and remaining a continuing beckoning presence throughout the week. Our visit to Filicudi was something of a mixed blessing – well maybe not even mixed. We arrived to find set of sturdy looking visitors buoys. An unfriendly ormegiatore zoomed out to place us on one of these refusing to budge from his demand for 40 euros. We were in no position to bargain given the forecast of strong winds overnight making this the only secure place to be. We went ashore to the rather decrepit village – wandered along the road for a bit finding something of a two tone economy with poverty stricken hovels side by side with posh electronic gated properties. The island didn't exactly feel open to visitors. We returned to the boat by which time there were 3 other visiting yachts on the moorings – one of which was a giant charter catamaran completely dwarfing us on the next buoy. We had a meal on board and went off to sleep but were awoken around 1.30 by manic flapping in a howling wind. Up on deck in torrential rain, thunder and lightening we found the gigantic cat swinging wildly around back and forth across our bow at dangerously close quarters with a long boarding gangway rigged at its stern angled perfectly to wipe out our forestay. Two of the hunky Norwegian crew of 8 were out in their dinghy, bizarrely searching for a lost cushion in the teeming wind and rain. However, once they realised our predicament they then valiantly remained on watch all night (as did we) with their motor running, moving themselves forward every time a gust blew them on to us. At 6.30 the rain had stopped, though it was still gusty and they departed to our, and I am sure their, great relief. We then managed a couple of hours sleep. We were not impressed at a system allowing the provision of buoys at a ridiculous and arbitrary price, placed far too close to others, without any responsibility, means of contact or redress.

By mid-morning the wind had dropped considerably and we enjoyed a pleasant run under genny and mizzen in 15 knots just aft of the beam, across to the island of Vulcano, passing through the Bocche di Vulcano and into the anchorage off the mud pool and sea water springs. Mud pools on Vulcano We anchored on a steep shelf in 9 metres dropping back to water 27 metres deep. The nearby crater was peacefully steaming and emitting a permanently sulphurous odour. Ashore we explored the 'town' – a tacky collection of tourist outlets and the famed mud pool. Jean loved it; Chris didn't fancy it! Julia tried but didn't love it –The Crater on Vulcano the warm gloop seemed more likely to spread the ailments it was mean to cure than provide any therapeutic effect – but the hot seawater springs were wonderful. Next morning we hiked up to the rim of the steaming crater created in 1888 and 1890 – an awesome and very smelly sight.

After lunch, with wind getting up again gusting to 25 knots we up-anchored, in the process sheering the anchor shackle but luckily not losing the anchor. The wind was still blowing strongly from the west for the 4 mile passage to Lipari. There is nowhere to anchor off the town and so we went into one of several small marinas – very pleased this time to be in a position to negotiate a price. Having already explored the price of one marina by phone, we were able to reject the first we passed as being too expensive, and to negotiate a price we liked at the next – for an alongside berth. We like alongside berths – a rarity in the Med – because being an old fashioned boat, we have no easy means of getting off the boat either at bow or stern. Though protected there from the strong wind, the swell crept in – or rather surged in - causing us to snatch and heave constantly. The town of Lipari was a delight – not least because the first sight ashore was a little chandlery with exactly the shackle we needed to replace the one which had just sheered. We explored the picturesque streets and old port area and enjoyed a good meal out that evening, then visited the staggeringly comprehensive archaeological museum the next morning.

After lunch we set off - again edging ever closer towards the goal of Stromboli. Our next stop was Panarea, an island conveniently placed exactly half way between Lipari and Stromboli. We motor-sailed the 12 miles with the wind unexpectedly right on the nose and swell constantly throwing us sideways. Given the number of yachts we passed coming the other way we seriously wondered about conditions on Panarea - however, the bay of Milazzese on the south east corner of the island was surprisingly comfortable and quite busy with around a dozen yachts.

Next morning we moved the 2 miles on to the little town of Scalo Ditella – tasteful and delightful with its sparkling white buildings and colourful climbing plants. We spent a couple of hours shopping and sipping coffee in a smart cafe, overlooking the wharf as first the supply ship arrived causing a flurry of electric carts plying back and forth collecting goods, and then a steady stream of trip boats delivering their hoardes.

After lunch at last it was time for the final push to mighty Stromboli itself. We enjoyed a fast and boisterous beam reach – passing Sciara del Fuoco on the western side of the island where eruptions occur every 20 mins or so – and have done so apparently for the past 2,000 years. The great flank of lava hissing down to the sea was an awesome sight and with an onshore wind, Chris suggested not a good place for the steering to fail – which luckily it didn't! We continued round to north of island – and then down the east side to San Vicenzo. It was far too deep to anchor, but the pilot referred to a 'buoy field'. This turned out to be a motley collection of different looking moorings – it was unclear whether or which were for visitors. However, there was only one left so we attached ourselves to it (in a depth 35 metres just over 100 metres off the narrow black beach) and waited to see what would happen. After a while a rib came out and, very relieved to be allowed to stay put, we didn't quibble at the 35 euro charge – by then conditioned into thinking 35 euros for a buoy is quite reasonable! After a meal on board, we set off in the dark, leaving the dinghy on our buoy, retracing our route back round north of island for the famed night viewing of Stromboli Stromboli– which certainly didn't disappoint. We would have been content with the orange flickering which emanated at 20 min intervals, but were blown away by the great fiery red jet which suddenly spewed out a couple of hundred metres high causing the lava all around to glow red threatening to tumble down to the sea! Awesome! Overnight we observed more impressive gushings of smoke from the crater lit up by a full moon, and in the morning we found a light covering of volcanic ash over the boat.

Next morning we returned to Milazzo on the mainland of Sicily transfixed by the view of Stromboli receding behind us – its classic cone shape topped by a cloud of smoke in the by now benign clear blue skies and flat seas.

Our next challenge was the Strait of Messina – entered between the twin whirlpools of Scylla and Charybdis. The strait at its narrowest is only 1 ½ miles wide through which waters flow back and forth between the Tyrrhennian and the Ionian Seas – with their different times for high water and different densities causing swirling and heaving eddies ('bastardi') and whirlpools. All these features conspired, certainly in ancient times, to make this a dreaded and perilous passage – from the Odyssey: “all the sea was like a cauldron seething over intense fire when the mixture suddenly heaves and rises.” All this is at its strongest at springs – which was exactly when we were tackling it. Despite our calculations, Etna sunset we were far too early, arriving at peak flow to find the water dancing and swirling around and flowing at 4 knots – but we had a fast and uneventful passage through the first section and into the marina at Messina.

After dropping Jean off in Messina, we continued through the strait and around the toe of Italy, finally leaving Sicily with a stunning view of Etna at sunset.

Aremiti at Sibari After a 24 hour sail we stopped off in an anchorage just south of Crotone, before setting off again at 4am next morning for the final 63 miles to Sibari in the far reaches of Calabria. We have visited Sibari before and know this to be a safe haven for Aremiti over the winter. She is now out of the water and covered up.

We will miss her terribly.