Position: 37°54’56″N 12°19’41″E
During the winter in Cartagena I had a long chat with a fellow named Peter. Peter had a low opinion of most cruisers in the Med and dismissed charterers out of hand. He encouraged me to pay careful attention to the weather wherever we went. Be prepared to sail in lively conditions, he said, or you’ll end up like the rest [of the cruisers] and spend all your time motoring. The seas get lumpy and confused and come straight up at you. There isn’t a regular swell like you find in the Atlantic. With enough wind you can cut through it. You want a boat like yours with a full keel. Modern, lightweight boats aren’t cut out for anything other than fair weather sailing. Aleta and I took that as a compliment.
A Season for All Men
The Med is a moody body of water. Fashioned by the land, the weather twists and snarls forecasts into knots. What would be accurate for days in the Caribbean, changes hourly in the Med. After watching the weather closely for the past couple of months, I’m getting better at interpreting official forecasts. Small things like focusing on wind gusts, and less on predicted wind speed, becomes important. Out here gusts sustain themselves far longer than they have any right to. Fortunately, updated forecasts are rarely far away and refreshed every three to six hours.
Playing Life’s Cards
Crossing the Tyrrhenian Sea from Cagliari to the Egadi Islands two days ago gave us an opportunity to test Peter’s advice. Crossing the Tyrrhenian in anything less than a trireme seems inappropriate, but we play the cards we are dealt in life. The forecast called for 10-15 knots of wind out of the northwest. Seas 1.3 metres, building to 2+ overnight. That meant a dead downwind run to Sicily with a regular shove from the waves. Sounded good on paper (LCD).
Downwind isn’t Aleta’s favourite point of sail. Give her a beam reach and 17 knots of wind and she’s a happy girl. Accelerating down the face of waves in lighter air collapses the jib and generally flogs the rig. Aleta has a whisker pole, yet we haven’t quite worked out how to set it. Her high-set jib clew is ten feet off the deck and the staysail gets in the way of things.
We left first thing Tuesday morning. Well, the first thing after a latté and croissant at the local bakery, plus a little shore leave for Marlon. Aleta was tucked into a berth tight enough to need several back and forth manoeuvres before we could get her pointed in the right direction. For the technically minded, I learned her MaxProp pulls to port if it’s not adequately revved and the pitch reversed.
Out in the Gulf of Cagliari the wind picked up steadily, blowing a fair bit of chop ahead of it. Dead downwind, we shortened the main in the theory that it was blanketing the jib and causing it to collapse. The main’s single reef slowed us down and did little for the jib’s misbehaviour. Now a steady 20 knots with gusts to 25, we kept the main where it was and tried shortening the jib a bit. Humph.
The Milky Way
Clearing the bight, a westerly swell joined the northwesterly chop, adding roll to the Gulf’s rock. The wind blew steadily towards 111o. Directly to our destination. Eventually, we took Aleta off the wind and onto a broad reach, jibing along on a course of 95o, and then 135o and back again. She gained speed and balanced up.
Sunset red and warm against the few clouds on the horizon settled down. The moon wasn’t due for a couple of hours and the sky quickly filled with stars. The Milky Way emerged out of the purple blue dark and soon shone in a brilliant arc above our heads. The wind moderated a bit and we spent most of the night surfing along between five and a half to six knots. Our Raymarine autopilot almost kept up with the figure of eight rolls that came along every three minutes. Truth be told, Tinman, our Monitor windvane, does a better job anticipating and steering through downwind sashays. So long as we’re not hand steering, we love both systems equally.
Early Wednesday morning the Egadi Islands peered through the haze. 40 miles off. For the next six hours we rolled along and only turned on the motor five miles before anchoring (mostly to charge the batteries and make some hot water).
The reality is many cruisers spend more time driving their boats than sailing them in the Mediterranean. An old joke told by old sailors supports this presumption. “I wore out three engines sailing in the Med”, Peter told me with a wisp of a smile. Triremes had oarsmen on three levels, in addition to sails, for good reason. Rarely do we run into people who comfortably sail overnight. Sailing couples day hop from one marina to the next under power.
We’ve learned that with a stout boat and experienced hands you can save a lot of fuel and get there faster. Besides, she’s a sailboat, dammit! Sail her!
A View from the Helm