The Weather Window Quandary
The Ionian Sea between Sicily and Greece is a notoriously difficult stretch of water to get a perfect weather window for crossing in one go. This is especially so as autumn arrives bringing regular storms. In the last two weeks we have sat out three storms with only a few days clear between each one. We didn’t want to head north and work our way in day hops around the foot of Italy waiting out any storms in the marinas down that coast. So, we were going to have to accept a not too perfect window to make our straight across dash. We could of course have stayed on for a while longer in Greece, but it was beginning to feel like we were just killing time.
The forecasts we’d been pouring over didn’t all agree but the general consensus was that we would have some northerly aspect winds for the first day, dieing off into Saturday night. Sunday wasn’t looking too hopeful for any winds and there was a chance of westerly winds along southern Sicily on Monday which would scupper us for getting into Marina di Ragusa. Another storm system was waiting in the wings for an appearance on Wednesday. Forecast to swirl up from south of Malta, it was something we definitely needed to avoid. We could have aimed for Syracuse and sat out the storm there. That would allow for more slow sailing speeds. But we just wanted to be in rather than spending a week bouncing about at anchor, worrying about the weather and the risk of damaging Emerald.
Wind Power or Diesel?
With 320nm to cover, we couldn’t hang around too long and we’d need to keep up a certain speed. As it turned out we were able to make reasonable sailing speeds the first day. Then, when the winds eased and the swell didn’t, there was no way we were going to wallow in them sailing at 2kts. We didn’t like it but we would have to burn the diesel. With the main up we motored at around 6kts which would get us comfortably in Monday afternoon.
The weather gods also had little respect for the fact that the Rugby World Cup is on at the moment and both of us would be missing our countries’ games. We did manage to get the scores via a satellite phone text message relayed to us by vhf and via our ssb email system but it really isn’t the same as watching them live.
A Grim Start
Our alarms woke us up at 5:30am. Although we hadn’t had much sleep what with the rain hammering down outside and the usual concerns before a long crossing buzzing around our heads. What greeted us outside was a wet, black as coal grimness. Neither of us had any desire to go out there. We should have been leaving at 6 but radioed Lazy Tern to let them know we were hanging on for an hour, at least by then we should have a bit of daylight.
We had moved on Friday from Ag. Efimia to Goat Bay to give us an hour head start on our journey. An almost constant deluge of rain that day prevented us from completing some of the stowage jobs. We had dashed out in a brief gap to get the dinghy and outboard stowed, but there was other stuff we didn’t want to put below whilst it was soaking wet. A soggy, damp boat inside as well as out did not appeal.
We had expected the rain to have stopped by evening, giving things a chance to dry out. But it was continuous right through the night. During the hour delay we reluctantly went out into the cold, miserable gloom to fetch dripping covers inside and prepare the main.
A Reluctant Departure
By 7 a uniform grayness had settled in and we reluctantly set off. Glimpses of Kefalonia and Ithaka through the stair rod rain was soon swallowed by low clouds.
Everything was soaking wet, and the cockpit cushions were drenched. Luckily I had set the helm seat cushion out of the rain and was the only one dry enough to provide a seat. Drips were finding their way in through small holes in the canopy and more than one made a beeline for our coat collars. Grim.
Rounding Kefalonia, we met a swell from the north west but no wind from that direction. Instead there was a light breeze from the south. It wasn’t much anyway and we motor sailed out into the rolly sea.
An hour off the islands and the rain finally stopped; a little while later the wind kicked in from the north west. We rolled out the genny, silenced the engine, and we were sailing. Everything felt a little bit better all of a sudden.
Fifty Shades of Black
On our first afternoon we started to encounter rain squalls which we managed to avoid by adjusting our course slightly. With an almost full moon at night we could also see the curtains of rain and were able to avoid them.
This worked well until the moon set an hour before dawn. I peered out into the darkness ahead trying to work out where one subtle shade of black became a slightly different subtle shade of black but it was no good, it had become one huge mass of blackness. I adjusted our course a little more south and hoped for the best. Over the next hour the sky gradually brightened from the east, but the cloud mass was out west where it was still dark. Eventually the tendrils of dawn pushed the darkness away and the cloud I’d been fretting over turned out to be pretty benign. Well at least we weren’t going to get a drenching and it had kept me busy and alert for half my watch.
Things Best Avoided
As well as playing avoid the rain squall, we also needed to avoid other shipping. From our crossing to Greece we knew we wouldn’t encounter many ships and that they tend to follow known routes. The first route is just off the Greek islands with ships on a north-south course coming and going to the Adriatic. Then there is a line of them to cross running from the Messina Straights to the southern corner of the Peloponnese. We came across this path of ships at the same time as the big storm mentioned below. As it was mid afternoon we had plenty of daylight to spot the ships, one of them even changed course for us. Perhaps some of them are paying attention then.
During Sunday afternoon, one of the squalls got a bit feisty with flashes of lightning and rumbles of thunder. We had managed to pass south of it, but as we did so the wind picked up gusting F7 and churning up the sea state. We were motor sailing with 1 reef in the main, the squall wind gave us a good lift and we were soon romping away from the storm at 7 knots.
Thunder and Lightning Very, Very Frightening
Well, it seems Saturday’s storm was just a warm up for Sunday. We had avoided every squall we’d come across and the skies had cleared. With the sun out, it was a beautiful evening. It wasn’t to last.
However, reflecting the setting sun’s rays and looking all pretty in pink was a huge anvil shaped monster. When the sun dropped away and the sky darkened it took on more ominous tones. Stretching out from it were roiling masses of cloud in a line right across our path.
I woke Colin from his off watch so we could get another reef in the main. The spare navigation tablet went into the biscuit tin, and mobile phones and the handheld radio went into the oven. We talked about our escape plan if we got hit. I was frightened now, but the dolphins escorting us eased some of the fear.
Too Close for Comfort
The moon was now up and being a supermoon it was super bright and helped us see the cloud forms a little easier. We spotted a brighter gap in the dark curtains of rain and set a more southerly course for it with lightning flashing to the north of us. As we closed our gap the lightning began to move in on us. Suddenly our gap was no longer a gap but a thick, black curtain of rain and there was a flash and deafening crack or thunder directly overhead. A new cell had formed right above our heads.
Turning tail, we made a full 180 degree turn to avoid it and give us time to think. We tried to head south to go around it but from what we could see it was massive. Plus, there were more clouds bubbling south of that. So, we decided to get back on course and hope.
As it was we missed the main deluge of rain but my heart leapt every time we had a flash above us. Luckily nothing hit us and the winds arrived to help blow us away from it.
All night the storms flickered and flashed. The line stretched right from one side of the horizon to the other and didn’t seem to move all night as we left it in our wake.
After leaving the tumultuous weather behind, the skies cleared ahead making for perfect viewing of the lunar eclipse. My watch lasted most of the cycle. I watched the moon being slowly nibbled away by the darkness before turning a dull red.
Darkness spread out across the sea. The storm wall behind us was no longer visible apart from the regular flashes along it’s length. Above, the stars were now clearly visible. I hadn’t expected the total eclipse to last so long, over an hour. Then a sparkle of light returned to one edge of the moon, and the darkness slowly receded. We had zero winds and a flatter sea than we’d had so far. But a swell remained, and Emerald dipped and rolled as we motored along. It didn’t make for very good moon photos unless you enjoy looking at off-white blobs.
Life on Board
1. Meet the Slobs
Maybe this is something we shouldn’t admit to, but the combination of tiredness and the hard work in moving around the boat put personal hygiene way down the list of things we cared about. On Sunday morning when the sea had calmed down some and our motion was much more stable, the fuzz in my mouth reminded me I hadn’t brushed my teeth for 24 hours.
I’m sure the people who greeted us when we got ashore knew exactly what it’s like. Or were too polite to mention the slightly fusty smell coming from us and the clothes we’d worn for the last 60 hours.
2. Moving Around is a Workout
We had north westerly F4 to F5 winds for the first 12 hours. Followed by F6 for a few hours, allowing us to sail. What wasn’t so great was the beam on swell that was kicked up. It rolled us around like a pig in mud. This turned moving around the boat into a workout as a handhold was needed to move along. Going to the toilet was a feat of effort with legs jammed against anything solid to keep from falling off the loo.
Preparing food or getting a drink became a Krypton Factor style puzzle. Where to wedge fridge lids, cups, plates and knifes before they throw themselves to the floor during a big roll? Finally you’ve succeeded in preparing a sandwich with no injury to yourself and only a few dollops of mayo on the floor. How now to get one plate passed to the cockpit whilst leaving the other plate on the galley top to the mercy of the rolls? Quickly that’s how.
3. Safety Leashes
I know the safety leash could save our lives one day, but I really do hate wearing them. Invariably I get them snagged on something or wrapped around the helm. We wear ours always at night and also during the day if the weather gets hairy.
The wind didn’t have much consideration for our watch system. We both ended up being disturbed during our sleep to shake out a reef or put some sail away. Added to a disturbed night’s sleep the night before we left, we were both running our sleep credits dry.
I was so tired that at one point I’m pretty sure the Loch Ness Monster swam by, it’s long neck raised high out of the water to say hello. Perhaps it was on it’s holidays. And there were also a couple of UFOs that streaked across the sky. Honestly there were!
All’s Well That Ends Well
Lights on Sicily had been visible overnight and as Monday morning dawned the land became visible. Out to sea it was bright and sunny but black rain clouds loomed to the north over the land. We had a slight westerly breeze.
Being close to land allowed us to pick up an internet signal. With an updated forecast, we made the decision to continue on to Marina di Ragusa rather than pull in to Porto Palo. The wind didn’t increase much. This was a pleasant gift from the weather as it usually does on an afternoon around here.
Back to MdR
We counted 7 boats heading towards the marina and the marineros were having a busy afternoon. However, we only had to wait a moment before a marinero arrived. He pushed us to turn Emerald stern to into our berth. It was a lovely, warm feeling to see friends waiting to help with lines. The sun was still shining as we tidied her up, fastened on the boarding plank and stepped ashore.
The big storm that we had rushed in to beat had disappeared from the forecasts. This was a little frustrating given how much we had pushed on. As we recounted the tales of our crossing with friends over pizza and Prosecco that evening, we concluded that although it would have been great to have been able to sail more, with no breakages, no damage and just some diesel burnt, we were actually very grateful to have arrived safely for another winter in MdR.
Kefalonia, Greece to Marina di Ragusa, Sicily: 322nm travelled (89nm sailed): 58 hours travelling time