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  • Writer's picturePeter

Beautiful Bays, Fantastic People, Treacherous Straits, Spare Parts and an active Volcano

These are all a part of the variety of our daily adventures as we continue our sailing around the Sicilian coastline.

You may think that living on a sailboat, idly sailing from one beautiful bay to another is a simple and easy lifestyle. We also thought it would be, but in fact (and I know you will cry on our behalf) this is not such an easy life as we thought. We need to be continually making plans that are based on expected wind and wave directions, we need to manage our water and food supplies and need to clean the boat with sweet water to keep the salt off. While sailing, the sails need to be continually checked and trimmed for optimum performance according to the ever-changing wind strengths and directions and there needs to be a 24 hour watch at all times.. Whenever we arrive in a new location we need to locate supermarkets for re-supply and purchase quantities that are easy to carry (we have no car). The more places we go the more time for planning and organisation needs to be made.

We have therefore decided that we will further slow down our pace of travelling to allow us to relax a little more and to enjoy the locations we visit. Though I don’t think of ourselves as tourists, we probably are and it is always good to take the time to enjoy the places that we visit, rather than to rush and keep rushing. We want to spend at least a few days in each location and hopefully stretch it out for a week or so (weather and sea conditions permitting). We have time and want to enjoy the freedoms that we have, rather than to be controlled by our own self-imposed deadlines.

We have tried to purchase our spare parts locally where possible, but we have found that generally the Dutch and German manufacturers and suppliers are much more interested in a sale and delivery than the French and Italian suppliers. We always get a DHL tracking reference and really good delivery times. Fortunately, we are spending less and less on spare parts as the boat is getting into better shape with our maintenance and replacements, however there are, unfortunately, some exceptions.

Recently, my Bow Thruster gave up on me (as usual during a critical moment of mooring). With a burnt-out motor, it was clear that a new one was needed and urgently. We had responses from Italy that ranged from “maybe 1 week or so” to “1 month” - you see it is summer season and we are very busy, whilst from The Netherlands a delivery within 3 days was promised using an express DHL service.

The 35kg of motor did actually arrive within 3 working days of purchase from the Netherlands and fitted by the resident Ocean Deva mechanic (surprisingly without a hitch.)

Just to explain; the bow thruster is a propeller fitted in the bow (front) of the boat. Its function is to help control the lateral position of the boat, with an immediate response. When I am wiggling into a tight mooring location (and there is often not more than 15cm on either side of the boat), a little fine tuning, especially when there is a side wind, is very helpful. The wind on the side of the boat, which is not moving very quickly, results in significant lateral movement.

We all try to work without the bow thruster, but it is such a useful and powerful item of equipment that to sail without one is not a very practical idea, especially with a larger boat in a new marina where we have no experience of local conditions.

We have been very pleasantly surprised with the friendliness and help given to us while we visited a Covid-19 vaccination centre in Palermo. It was almost like going to a restaurant “Which vaccine would you like, Johnson, Pfizer, Astra Zenica ?”, “Oh you don’t have an Italian fiscal number, no problem sir, we can organise this for you.” “And your address ? Ocean Deva in The Sitimar Marina here in Palermo - No problem, that will do nicely.”

Then we had an interview with a doctor who suggested that Johnson for ex-cancer patients was not ideal and a better choice would be Pfizer – is this OK for me ?

The Palermo centre was massive and run with an almost military precision and a very friendly human face. The organising ladies enjoyed practicing their English on us and I think we were a fun distraction from their daily routine.

After the first vaccination, we were immediately booked for our second to make sure we have the optimum benefit of the program.

For our second vaccination we arrived in Catania where we explained our Sea Gypsy lifestyle, and with a little persuasion our second jabs were organised and administered.

From us, really “hats off” to the kind people who helped in getting our vaccinations organised (at no cost, and to non-residents) with a very friendly smile. All "problems" had solutions, rather than becoming bogged down in bureaucratic excuses - it was like the instructions were simply to get people vaccinated. We were never made to feel we were intruding or abusing the system, we were just people who needed to be vaccinated like everyone else.

There is no comparison to the Spanish system (where we are tax paying residents with our own private medical insurance obliged by the government). We still have not been invited for our 1st vaccination, even though we went to the local medical centre to register our request 4 months ago.

Since we arrived in Sicily, it has been hot, so hot to the point where we almost look back with fondness to our cool days in Brest and a little fresh air would be a nice relief. In the day time we shut out the sun and try some ventilation to keep average internal temperatures below 35 degrees, though it often goes up to 39 degrees (maybe we should have air conditioning after all ?). But with the water temperature at 30 degrees, nothing really has a chance to cool down.

By early evening there is sometimes a cool breeze outside and we spend our time on the front of the boat as we watch the sun go down (around 8.00pm these days) and continue there for our dinner. What is clear is that being on the water is slightly better than being in a marina and with a little forwards motion from sailing there is a pleasant element of cooling. Sometimes the sea is as calm as a mill pond without a ripple in sight. The only solutions are to sit in the shade, stand in the water and/or eat ice cream.

Our trip journey around Sicily has been great, with so many beautiful places to visit. Bays with turquoise waters, sandy beaches and great food (read: Ice Cream) everywhere. My only “problem” is that most beautiful bays and beautiful marinas have attracted such a significant quantity of tourists that seem to like being fed a diet of disco music & live music, and pleasure boats that are actually night clubs that sail around the bays where exhausted sailors are trying to sleep. In short, the summer season is not for those who have difficulty in sleeping next to a very noisy neighbour.

Luckily the music seems to stop at about 2.30 am, so there are a few hours of quiet. I wonder what it is like at other times of the year and if this is only the consequence of the summer season? We are getting wiser to this issue and hopefully our anchoring will be away from the beach discos for when we need quieter evenings.

Our most beautiful location to date has been the Island of Ustica with clear water in the harbour and a deep ultramarine colour all around the island. We hiked up and down and all around (it is only a small place) and enjoyed a few days back on land. We would have loved to spend more time there, but we had other plans and commitments. We do know, however, that we would like to return sometime in the future.

Heading down the east coast of Sicily, through the Straits of Messina was out next step. I had thought that with only a 50cm difference between high and low tide that the straits would not be a problem – we had passed through other straits such as Gibraltar which were much more "difficult".

However, this was also a location Odysseus had some problems and maybe I had better do some checking. In the ancient story from Greek Mythology, Homer sited Scylla and Charybdis (the 2 sea monsters) who

lived on opposite sides of the Strait of Messina between Sicily and the Italian mainland. Scylla was rationalized as a rock shoal (described as a six-headed sea monster) on the Calabrian side of the strait and Charybdis was a whirlpool off the coast of Sicily. They were regarded as maritime hazards located close enough to each other that they posed an inescapable threat to passing sailors; avoiding Charybdis meant passing too close to Scylla and vice versa. According to Homer's account, Odysseus was advised to pass by Scylla and lose only a few sailors, rather than risk the loss of his entire ship in the whirlpool - what a choice !

As we started our research, we quickly discovered that this was quite a treacherous location and timing to avoid the whirlpools was important. Thank goodness for - this is an essential guide to identify the correct times to pass through the Straits and what currents we could expect (I think Odysseus did not have this app on his cell phone). Actually, as the Straits are so narrow, there are huge currents in this area and it would have been foolhardy to ignore them – sometimes currents of greater than 4 knots flow in different directions, according to the state of the tides.

In the beginning, as we entered the straits, the waters were calm, though sections of high current and turbulent water could be seen. Also at this time, a small storm was building up with some very ominous clouds as a warning of stronger winds to come. With the wind behind us and the current with us we made great speed through the straits as we passed some reckless boats that were really struggling as they were trying to go in the opposite direction. The wind picked up to almost 30 knots (that's a force 7, near gale), and it was necessary to significantly reduce the sail area to prevent damage and keep things under control.

The most “important” stop was in Taormina Bay. The reason was because it is a beautiful location for a view of Taormina itself, an ancient city up on the hillside and across the bay, in the other direction, there is the most fantastic view of Mount Etna. As we arrived, Etna was gently smoking away to greet us and reminded us that she was still active. We quickly noticed a fine covering of black ash all over the boat that needed to be washed off on a daily basis. Also the streets of Taormina and surrounding cities were quite thick with black ash everywhere.

Safely attached to a mooring buoy, we decided to be “tourists” again and we booked our trip to the volcano that included getting as close to the top as possible. Unfortunately, due to the volcanic activity of the year, nobody was allowed to go to the top – 3,350m (and rising due to new ash on a daily basis), we were limited to 2,700m – quite a long way up, but still far from the top. The summit actually consists of 4 cinder cones that are all sending ash, gas and water vapour into the atmosphere and the cone on the southern side (our side) is currently the most active.

Oddly, we even found a layer of ice, covered with ash, where we were allowed to walk. Etna is also a ski resort in the winter, but to find snow and ice on a hot summers day was unexpected.

We walked on the recently deposited ash – apparently over 5cm of new ash in the last few days. Unfortunately, we saw no exciting lava flows or explosive eruptions, I suppose we just needed to be patient. We therefore sat down for our lunch of red tomatoes and bread, which was a beautiful colour contrast with the black ash where we sat and enjoying the view. We also visited a gorge, with icy cold water, where the cooled lava flows were beautifully exposed. The lavas showed the classic hexagonal columnar cooling patterns that are famous in geology from the locations such as The Giants Causeway and Fingles Cave in Ireland.

On a final geological note, Mt. Etna is very interesting as, according to all the current understanding of the earth (little do we know), Etna should not be there ! Volcanos such as Stromboli to the north are the result of the subducted African plate as it dips below and melts under the Eurasian plate. But Etna is still on the African plate as it travels northwards (a few centimetres per year - about as fast as your fingernails grow) with no good explanation for its location, other than a "hot spot" on the earth.

Early the following morning, back in the safety of our boat in the bay Ingrid comes shouting quick, quick, look at Etna. There she was in her full glory, billowing smoke and ash, spitting fire and allowing lava to flow down her southern flank (that’s Etna, not Ingrid).

It was quite a sight to behold and thankfully we were not at 2,700m on her southern slopes where we were having our lunch the day before.

The photo is from Riposto Bay, a little further south of the same morning, but their view and photo was better than mine.

We appreciated the wave goodbye from her as we sailed onto our next destinations of Siracusa, Ragusa and Licata as we explore the coastline of this diverse and beautiful island that has been so welcoming and friendly to us.

Incidentally, the Oil Platform below is called "Precioso" and the steel was supplied by Gianluca to ENI from Thyssenkrupp manufacturing in Germany. We also passed the Perla Platform, but one photo of a platform is sufficient.

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