Every corner of the world’s oceans has their own peculiarities. The roving squalls of the equatorial Pacific, the steep winter seas of the stormy northern Atlantic, the dreaded gales of the Gulf of Tehuantepec and the magically flat waters of the Great Barrier Reef are just four points on a star of widely varying conditions within the ocean sailor’s universe. However, when we add an overlay of human interaction onto the warm waters of the southern Tyrrhenian Sea, nature and humanity can collide in some outlandish ways.
Every summer in the central Mediterranean, tens of thousands of tourists and hundreds of cruising vessels flock to the southern islands of the Tyrrhenian. Here, the clear blue sea and generally benign climate conditions create the ideal haven for cruising sailors, local boaters, sunbathers and divers who revel in the balmy, relatively calm weather, perfect for romantic dinners at beach resorts and fun-filled deck parties in safe, cozy anchorages.
However, as with all things oceanic, trouble is always knocking at the companionway. Indeed, if Odysseus, the great sea captain from Ithaca, were to rise from his grave and take the modern wayward sailor under his wing to offer counsel, he would leave no doubt that trouble is always lurking just beneath the water’s surface.
It was mid-summer and I motored the 37 miles from Scylla on the Calabrian coast in southern Italy (the reputed location of the two dangers from Homer’s Odyssey: Scylla and Charybdis) to Isola Vulcano in the Lipari Islands of the Aeolian island group. My Cal 30 Saltaire entered the tiny, overcrowded anchorage at 1700. Vulcano, known for its therapeutic, bubbling pools of warm lava, is the southernmost of the Lipari Islands off the northeast coast of Sicily.
With my eyes quickly shifting between the beach and the depth sounder, I searched for a good spot to anchor when someone out of the blue yelled, “Bill!” On his 30-foot sloop Barbablu were Cosimo and his son Dario, whom I had met at the public marina in Reggio di Calabria. As I passed their boat, Cosimo yelled, “Turn left fast! There are rocks!”
Hitting the hard stuff
Bang! Crunch! Too late. For the first time since I had owned Saltaire, I managed to get her stuck on hard ground. To be sure, she had run aground numerous times before, but I had always managed to pull her off the hard within a few seconds.
Saltaire had run aground in Puerto Madero, Mexico, and Garry’s Anchorage on the Queensland Coast of Australia, but the bottom in both places was soft and silty, allowing for a quick extraction by simply throwing the engine into reverse and revving up the RPMs for a few seconds. In Nadi Waters, Fiji, while my wife Marilu and I were motoring to the island of Malolo Lailai, Saltaire ran up onto coral, but the bouncing of the waves enabled a quick extraction.
This time proved to be a much greater challenge. I quickly threw the gearbox into reverse, and with the light swell from the crisscrossing of nearby motorboats intermittently lifting the keel from the rocks, Saltaire slowly inched her way back towards the edge. At one point, she refused to budge. What would I do if she got stuck with the dropping tide? The bottom of her fiberglass keel could be ground off like cheese on a grater, turning her hull into a giant funnel!
I waited until a large swell crossed under her and then quickly gunned the engine, finally pulling the keel out of the shallow hole and continued to use the small swells to make progress. Ever so gradually, I pulled her — bang, bang, bang — into deeper water. Having had enough excitement for the afternoon, or so I thought, I decided to anchor 150 yards to the south in a depth of only 40 feet. The evening merriment was just getting started.
After a quick swim, I rowed my dinghy, Saltine, over to Barbablu for a little visit. Dario passed me a cold beer, and while we were talking, the wind suddenly shifted from the northwest to the east. Naturally, all 50-some-odd vessels in the cramped little anchorage, most of them anchored no more than a boat length apart, banged into each other as they swung into the wind. “So, this is the Med way,” I mused.
Anchoring in tight quarters
At first glance, Mediterranean sailors may seem like the scariest yachtsmen in the world with the hair-raising risks they take. But there are thousands of sailing and motor vessels spread out across the Med, so these skippers are accustomed to anchoring in tight quarters and are simply inure to the consequent collisions. Some skippers hang fenders from the rails to prevent damage while others throw caution to the wind, shrugging off the occasional damage to their hulls, which is usually only cosmetic, a few scuffs and scratches.
Cosimo quickly fired up his diesel engine while Dario and I sprang to the foredeck to raise the anchor. How fancy — a 30-footer with an electric windlass. Even more surprising was the thin gauge of anchor chain, which looked more suited to a backyard swing set. Apparently, that is the standard size (about three sixteenths inch) for boats based in the Med.
Dario and I took turns at trying to dislodge the anchor, but our efforts were in vain. The anchor was irretrievably stuck, leaving only one alternative. With the mid-summer sun dangling in the eastern sky, there was still enough time and underwater visibility for a dive on the anchor. Dario donned mask, snorkel and fins and dove into the water to attach a trip line to the anchor head.
Stuck under a rock
After half a minute, Dario’s head popped up from the water, and panting for air he sputtered, “It’s stuck under a rock really deep, but I think I can get it out if I pull hard.” Cosimo and I glanced at each other, then shrugged our shoulders.
“Okay, try again, son,” Cosimo said calmly.
Dario dove again into the dark blue water, disappearing for another half minute to wrestle with the anchor embedded in the rocks. Again, he ascended and reported, “I was able to move the anchor side by side a little, but it still won’t budge. I’ll try again.”
“Go ahead, son,” Cosimo answered, “but if we cannot pull it out, we will just spend the night here and deal with this later.” After several tries, it was obvious the anchor extraction required equipment neither they nor I possessed on our boats.
Cosimo’s anchor was embedded firmly beneath a large boulder belonging to the same rock pile that had leaped out and clutched Saltaire’s keel. Cosimo glanced at me with a look of utter disgust and resignation. “This whole bay is sand, except this one pile of rocks, and you and I have both gotten stuck on it today.”
I downed the last of my beer, crushed the can and ventured a solution. “Why don’t you just buoy the anchor, cut the chain and then anchor somewhere else with your other hook?”
“No,” Cosimo replied pensively. “If you can take me ashore in your dinghy, I will find a scuba tank and a big steel shaft and free the anchor.”
So off we went, rowing to the beach, where he disappeared into the small settlement. I found a ramshackle beach bar where I could wait out the “ten minutes” that surely would take at least an hour. After polishing off a can of Peroni beer, I sauntered along a dirt road fringed by bubbling, stinking, yellow sulfur mud. These small fissures in the ground are all connected to the main volcano at the center of the island. A smaller volcano, Vulcanello, lies only a mile away at the island’s north end.
Famous volcanic mud
Isola Vulcano is famous for its sulfuric volcanic mud, which is prized for its supposed youth-restoring properties. Movie stars, corporate moguls and commonfolk alike flock to the island during the summer to soak in sulfur mud baths, which allegedly improve the health of their skin and help them trim off pounds of excess weight.
Some of the tourists walking along the road had their faces completely covered in volcanic mud, having paid large sums of money at a mud bath spa, Italy’s answer to the Fountain of Youth. I have heard that some people immerse their entire bodies in this gunk, believing this is the one true way to weight loss and enduring beauty. From the look of these portly tourists, I could readily understand the popularity of this little island and its active albeit lazy volcano, which would rather fart than fight.
After an hour had passed, I looked out across the anchorage and unmistakably noticed two people aboard Barbablu. Upon finding the dinghy unmanned and me nowhere in sight, Cosimo must have decided to swim back out to his boat.
I rowed to Barbablu to discover a somber skipper. His search had been as fruitless as the spindly trees in the pale, malodorous island mud. No scuba tank, no crowbar. Plan C was to call a friend in Reggio who could put the equipment on the next ferry to Isola Vulcano. At this point, there was little more to do but relax.
A dinner invitation
Cosimo invited me to a spaghetti dinner, so I rowed back to Saltaire to take another quick swim and to grab whatever wine was left. Upon my return to Barbablu, Cosimo lit the stove and proudly announced, “I make very good spaghetti.” A heavenly, intoxicating aroma of tomatoes, olive oil, herbs and spices floated in the warm atmosphere of Barbablu’s cabin, and my stomach growled with hunger pains. Cosimo put a pot of water on the stove, preparing to boil spaghetti, the last step before the anticipated feast.
As the water heated, my mind wandered back to the many spaghetti dinners Marilu and I had enjoyed during our Pacific crossing. Wherever we stopped, she searched the street bazaars for fresh, locally grown rosemary, sage, basil, tomatoes, onions and garlic to produce memorable pasta sauces. In Australia, she created a unique mix of flavors, using locally raised grass-fed beef to add structure and a fuller flavor to the sauce. Of course, we washed down these repasts with well-crafted red wine from Southern Australia’s Barossa Valley, savoring the wondrous blend of locally grown herbs and garden vegetables, similar to those I was about to enjoy. Now longing for the evening’s feast, my eyes turned to Barbablu’s stove.
At that very moment, the stove gas ran out. What were the odds of such a calamity? Where was the justice? I offered to let them cook on my stove, but Cosimo was so flustered by this point, he didn’t even bother to respond. He just stared out at the setting sun, keeping his cool, no doubt reflecting on the cruel juxtaposition of the afternoon’s events. After all, what angry god could have cast such a devastating spell leading to these seemingly disconnected occurrences — a hard grounding, the loss of his main anchor, the non-availability of tools necessary to retrieve it, and then a stove with no fuel — all on the same afternoon?
“Do you like pizza?” Cosimo calmly inquired.
“Do I like pizza? Does a bee like honey? Hell yes, I like pizza!” I eagerly responded with a broad smile.
Cosimo adamantly refused my offer of a few euros for the evening repast. “You are a guest on my boat, and I will provide everything.” And that was that. The pizza Dario brought from shore was superb, and we accompanied it with the liter of Fontana di Papa red wine I had bought in Reggio.
The following morning, Barbablu motored by Saltaire’s stern while I was typing away on my laptop. “Arrivederci, Bill!” yelled Cosimo and Dario. I sprang out to the cockpit, waved back and wished them well. Whatever became of their anchor, I will never know. They were in good spirits, so I guessed all was well. These southern Italians have to be among the warmest, friendliest, most hospitable people in the known universe. I had been spoiled rotten since my arrival in Reggio, although the folks I met in Chania, Crete a couple of weeks before had shown me the Greeks, too, share that same warm, caring attitude towards visitors.
Reducing Med expenses
Much is said about the high cost of cruising the Med. At first glance, that may appear to be true. Diesel is pricey, and the higher-end marinas can be expensive, too. Food and alcoholic beverages, on the other hand, can be had cheaply if one shops around. If you like red wine, olives, cheese, lamb, chicken, pork and freshly caught fish, life is far less expensive in the Med than in the U.S. On the other hand, if you must stay in fancy marinas where water and electricity are available, and eat only in high-end restaurants, then you need to be fairly well heeled.
There were moments when I hated sailing the Med, and moments when I loved it. Those first hours after leaving Porto di Levante, Isola Vulcano were pure joy. Saltaire ran southeast in a 20-knot mistral, which devolved into a series of calms as she rounded the volcano toward the southwest. Late that night, the wind shifted to a scirocco, forcing me to reduce sail and put Saltaire on a hard beat to weather. With the sails double-reefed, I spent the night on a wide tack in steep, oncoming seas, chalking up only 20 miles over the first 12 hours.
With sunrise came a light mistral, and Saltaire ghosted along, casually sailing to weather under full canvas, headed for her next destination of Cefalu on the northern coast of Sicily. Every so often, a huge swell rolled down from the northwest, quickly lifting Saltaire skyward, higher and higher, then gently letting her down as she pranced forward. A few puffs of cumulus clouds remained in the otherwise bright blue sky, a sharp contrast to the ominous black clouds and lightning flashes of the previous night. But there had been no storm — all bark, no bite.
The soft sail to Cefalu was one of those rare passages that remind me just how much I love sailing. From island hopping in the Pacific and cruising the Queensland coast with Marilu, to surviving a boarding by Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden, I had learned that the highs far outweigh the lows while sailing the Seven Seas. But after the craziness of the previous couple of days, who knew what adventures Poseidon still had in store for good ol’ Saltaire? n
Bill Morris circumnavigated aboard his Cal 30 Saltaire, much of it single-handed. He is the author of The Captain’s Guide to Alternative Energy Afloat.