Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Mediterranean’s Oldest Lighthouse

[Kyle]We had a nice lie-in in Palinuro. By the time we made out way out into the world, the beaches were filling up and the anchorage was filling with day-tripper boats (including one more trying to use our trip float as a mooring ball), kayaks and pedal boats. We readied Footprint for the next leg southwards across the Tyrrhenian Sea toward the Straits of Messina.

There was a slight swell and a few swirly gusts making their way into the anchorage by the time we left, an indication of the increasing winds in the open sea. Once out of the anchorage we hoisted the sails. Expecting forecast winds of the low teens we were soon experiencing winds of low 20’s kt once we left the protection of Capo Palinuro where they remained for the rest of the night. On the radio were broadcasts about gale warnings far to the west near Corsica. As a result, the incoming swell was much larger than would be expected in the winds we were experiencing – around 3m (10’).

It wasn’t large enough to be dangerous, just annoying. We were sailing right across the waves, so there was a lot of rolling and pounding. Every few minutes, down in the cabin, a crash would be heard as something else that wasn’t secured as well as it should be fell off of a shelf onto the floor. Every few hours, a wave would hit the windward hull in such a way as to send an unexpected wall of water over me just as I was finally getting dry from the last one.

At about 1am, shortly after taking-over from Maryanne I spotted it! A bright orange flash, and then another, and then another. This light has been guiding mariners from the straits of Messina across the Tyrrhenian Sea continuously for 1000’s of years. What I was seeing was the bright volcanic explosions atop Stromboli. As we approached through the night the explosions appeared brighter and bigger changing from bright flashes to vivid roman candle like explosive jets of lava.

With a little bit of effort and a lot of pounding I managed to get us about a mile to windward of the island and pulled down the sails, woke Maryanne, and the two of us drifted under bare poles under the volcano, enjoying our own private firework show. It was still night and the brilliance of the explosions back lit by a crescent moon was wonderfully dramatic. Unfortunately a boat is no platform for photographing such sights, but the memories we hope will last regardless.

Stromboli Island/volcano

The sun eventually rose, and we departed, skirting the restricted (danger) area at the base of the lava flow where it enters the sea. Stromboli is reputed to erupt about every 20 minutes, consistently for recorded history and is considered so predictable that plenty of people happily live on the tiny island (on the lava/ash flow free eastern flank). While we were watching there seemed some activity every couple of minutes, but with a major flare on about the 20 minute mark. Towards the end of our show, there was a long period of little activity; I was hoping to see one last flare before we sailed out of view around the island. Just as we approached the visible line between the lifeless western part and the vegetation covered eastern part of the islands we were lucky enough to see one last explosion from the less frequent but more dramatic eastern vent, spewing lava maybe 300’ up before arcing back towards the earth. For a brief moment I became concerned that we were perhaps too close, this final eruption was the first that we could hear now we were down wind of the vents. It sounded like a long freight train coupling to the engines with a long clunking rumble. After the rumble came the tinkling as the earth’s newest rocks crashed on the slopes disturbing their older siblings and rolling ablaze down towards the sea (and us!).

I had hoped to anchor in Stromboli for a day or so on the way south and make the hike up to view the crater first hand. But the island has no protected anchorage suitable for calm conditions only, and for the time being was on a dangerously exposed side. We pressed on instead for our next stop on the straits of Messina.

Soon after we left the lea of Stromboli the wind reduced and left us in a confused swell with no direction in correlation to the wind. We sailed for hours dead down-wind wing on wing whilst being pounded by seas from ahead and from the side. This caused our sails to slat, our progress to be reduced, and our ride uncomfortable. By the time afternoon approached we were in sight of the entrance to the Straits of Messina which separate the boot of Italy from the Mediterranean’s largest Island, the football of Sicily being kicked to the west. For several hours the wind continued to slowly die putting us through the torture of being within sight but with an ever-distant ETA. My original dreams of anchoring by lunch turned into being anchored by mid-afternoon, and hopefully by dark. Maryanne at one point expressed concern about our water levels and decided we still had a chance to make it to a fuel dock by close of business if we started the engine and dispensed with my dream. We topped up water and fuel at a car gas station with a long dock to a boat pump where the impatient attendant rushed us through topping up our jerry cans and water tanks in the minimum time possible ensuring lots of confusion and spilt water as we rushed from tank to tank under his glare.

With tanks full, we moved up the strait and anchored off a Sicilian beach - home to sunbathing locals and several establishments each blaring competing play-lists of summer beach pop music.

[Maryanne]This passage was over 24 hours and although not as rigid as we do for longer voyages, we slept in shifts. Each of us had to deal with an unexpected boat failure. On one of my watches, an un-cleated mainsheet caused the boom to be pushed too far out on a downwind sail and caused a tear on the main sail at one of the upper spreaders. Luckily we carry a host of repair equipment and spares aboard so that was readily resolved. On one of Kyle’s watch I heard from the bedroom some swearing and when I eventually rose he was dealing with the drive leg – which we raise when sailing. A weld had broken in just the same spot as a failure from August last year and caused the drive leg to drop down into the water (not a terrible problem but loss of sailing efficiency and speed). Kyle was insistent he wanted it raised so we jury rigged a system there and then and, once anchored, we improved it to enable us to raise and lower the drive-leg as necessary and to hold it up while under sail. In the mean time new parts are to be sent to us (free of charge – thank you Sillette) to cross paths with us next time Kyle is in the States.

The anchorage we chose turned out to be most entertaining. Each beach establishment owned a tiny stretch of Sicilian beach and put it’s stamp upon it. From different coloured umbrellas shading fancy sun loungers, to areas littered with old wooden fishing boats, to plane pebbly beach with a shack. All the real action though was on the water where surreal looking boats plough back and forth. They are swordfishing boats. Apparently the swordfish travel this stretch of water twice a year (once on the way out, next on the way back) and seem to sleep on the surface during the day; they are reported to leap out of the water with shock as any boat passes. Over the years the locals have noticed this tendency and now specialized boats do their best to catch the swordfish on their passage through. The boat is steered from atop a tower perhaps 40’ high, while some poor sole is left hanging on a 50’ bowsprit with a harpoon. The unwieldy boats can only be used in calm conditions and despite being late in the official swordfish migration season there were plenty plying the waters as we relaxed aboard Footprint.

Sicily's Messina strait beaches and curious Swordfishing boats


kate said...

WOW to several things: Stromboli! That sounded amazing watching the volcano's bursts (the Old Faithful of the volcano world!). And those swordfish boats are crazy looking- I had no idea such a thing existed; it looks dangerous standing on a pole that high but clearly they know what they're doing.

Mommy Dearest said...

What a fabulous tour of a region I knew nothing about. I can't imagine the thrill of watching Stromboli spew. It's something I've always wanted to see (but probably not from the proximity you had). In spite of your wind issues, this seems to be a wonderful new adventure. Wish I was there!