With our repairs completed and our new ‘bumpers’ installed we were back in the water by 2 pm on Wednesday, the 3rd, and planning to leave for Roccella. The forecast gave us south-easterly 15 to 20 knot winds for the whole passage and even a slight reduction for our planned arrival at Roccella on Friday morning.
But first, after 24 hours of dockyard work the boat was a tip, the compartments above the engine spaces are full of everything from the passarella and tool kits to the fishing gaff and hose fittings. All of this had to be removed to give the fitters access and now had to be replaced. Then there were fenders and mooring ropes to stow away, loose kit to be secured and everything generally prepared for 2 days at sea. So as soon as we were afloat and away from the dockyard slip we anchored off Lefkas Town Quay and set about preparing the boat for sea with an eye on the clock. The Lefkas bridge opens on the hour and happily by 2.50 we were good to go, weighed anchor and joined the queue of yachts waiting to transit the bridge. This takes a bit of boat handling to maintain position in the canal, in a cross wind, not too close to the others ahead or astern of you so as to time your arrival when the bridge opens.
Once through the bridge we passed the newly re-floated sunken yacht. Apparently the yachtsman involved had started a FB page to raise funds to help pay for the salvage ….. Whilst I have every sympathy I am pretty sure I would not have been on that wall in those winds, and definitely would not have used a kedge anchor – oh, and I don’t use FB!
But we were off, and we had the predicted ‘fair winds and following seas’. Generally south-easterly and 15 ish knots although close to the island they were a bit variable so I didn’t put the sails up. We needed to make 5 knots for two days and so faffing around with sails in variable winds was just going to be frustrating. Over night, with the winds settling to 15 knots from behind us, Valeria recorded us as surfing at up to 8 knots on occasions. Once I woke on Thursday morning we did get the sails up and were making 5 or 6 knots running before a 15 to 20 knot wind, all of which left us well ahead of schedule and by Thursday evening we had dropped the Main Sail and were under the Jib alone and still making 5 knots.
So with nightfall we furled away the jib and ‘sailed’ under ‘bare poles’. This is when you are running with the wind behind you, being pushed along by the wind acting on the hull alone. As we are so tall and wide we have a lot of ‘windage’ and even without sails or engines we were making 3 to 4 knots which was the exact speed we needed to make to get to Roccella at 8 am when the Marina opened for business.
But then fair winds and following seas became too much too little and the wrong direction.
As we approached the Italian coast on Thursday evening into Friday morning we could see lightening all along the Calabrian coast. Lots of it. As we got closer to the coast we began to get VHF reception and Italian weather forecasts which were predicting south easterly gales and thunder storms in the Ionian Sea area. As the evening wore on the wind began increasing slowly and all the thunder storms seemed to move along the coast to sit right in front of us, over Roccella.
Having seen the entrance to Roccella in south-easterly gales last year, with breaking seas over the sand bar, I did not fancy trying to negotiate the entrance with heavy beam seas, in a thunder storm and so at about 2.30 am I made the decision to head for a port of safety. On this coast there are two, Messina and Reggio, or Crotone. The Messina Straights are not particularly inviting in a south-easterly gale so it meant heading for Crotone, 40 odd miles, or 8 hours, north east along the coast. So with Roccella just 20 miles away we steered away.
By now the thunder storms were beginning to move off the coast and as we headed north east they were moving with us and the forecasts were predicting ‘instabilities moving rapidly north east’. We had lightening on three sides of us and by day break I could actually see the roll of cloud marking the edge of the squall line out to sea on our starboard side.
As the storms, easily visible on radar, did seem to be moving north east I decided to head out to sea for the roll of cloud, away from the lightening strikes. Blow me if the wind didn’t drop, swing around through 90 degrees and start up again from the NW. In military parlance the storms, which had been marching steadily north east in Column of Route, had just done a Right Turn on the March and were now Advancing in Review Order straight at us!
Thunder storms and squalls make their own wind and so trying to avoid them is a generally futile endeavour, but weighed that futility against the danger of a bolt of lightning using our nice aluminium mast as a grounding rod, which would fry our navigation aids, I gave it a go anyway. Valeria stowed all our electronics in the oven and microwave as both act as Faraday Cages which should protect them from lightening, and off we went.
At 8 am getting no closer to either Roccella or Crotone and still being chased by the storms I called Roccella, hopefully. We were told ‘you can come’ and so we altered course back south. In daylight the thunderstorms were easy to identify, looking completely different to mere rain showers. There was the low, dark cloud base and then beneath it the dull, almost dead grey of the torrential rain which provides a contrasting backdrop to the lightning bolts hitting the sea surface.
For two and a half hours I successfully managed to skirt these storms. Watching them on the radar was like hill walking, there was always one more crest to scale, always one more storm behind the ‘last one’. The winds were from everywhere and as we clipped the edges of some of the storms we had winds gusting to 30, even 40 knots. With the wind constantly changing direction the seas were ‘confused’ and had been whipped up to 5 metres high with breaking crests; at the Helm Station I am 4 metres above sea level and I was looking up at these waves!
With these sort of sea conditions moving around the boat is a real challenge. You move one foot or one hand at time. Move a hand and a foot and you are flat on your face. I won’t even go into toilet breaks whist wearing full foul weather gear and a safety harness in a boat pitching, rolling and yawing in 5 metres jumps.
Finally at 10.30 the southern-most squall passed us and there were just a few mere rain showers to the west so I altered course for Roccellla. But there was a sting in the tail of the storms. Two thunderstorms appeared ahead of us, one crossed in front of us but the second one there was no avoiding. Unlike the others we’d skirted the wind was almost non existent, the seas were still 4 or 5 metres high and confused but were no longer breaking, being beaten down by the torrential rain, visibility was down to a boat’s length and the lightening was striking the sea ahead of us. The strikes and the thunder were simultaneous, and deafeningly loud, literally someone toppling a wardrobe, a big one, right upstairs. Far too close for comfort.
Hoping that lightening really does not strike the same place twice, and that the plastic deck would provide sufficient insulation despite my exposed position and dripping wet foul weather gear we motored on, and on, and on. My big fear was a lightening strike to the mast – a very real danger. Without the electronic navigation aids we’d be relying on a mobile phone GPS, a paper chart and a magnetic compass, although how that would fare in a lightning strike I have no idea! Longest hour and a half of my life to be honest.
The first inkling of an end to it was a lessening of the rain drumming on the hull, then some slight definition to the horizon and finally lighter grey skies. Although the seas were still huge the reduced wind and hammering by the rain had calmed them down a bit and I pushed the throttles forward again and we were making 5 or 6, sometimes 7 knots towards Roccella. Now was not the time for single engine, fuel efficiency!
Finally, after about 12 hours of driving around in a circle, we could make out the coast, then the castle and watch tower over Roccella. The seas were still 3 metres high across the sand bar as we approached and turning into the harbour entrance put them on our beam so we were rolling around a bit as we headed for the entrance, but by comparison this was nothing. Our reserved winter berth required a bit of tight, stern first manoeuvring to get into but then we were in. The Marina Manager, Francesco, helped tie us up and was telling us that the local fishermen had been reporting 5 metre seas! Tell us about it!
But we were safely in. I had been on watch at the Helm Station continuously for 16 hours straight, drenched and dodging thunderstorms for 12 of them. Valeria had been in the saloon passing me food and coffee and praying, continuously. It all started going south on 4 October, my mum’s birthday and the day she died. Perhaps she was watching over us.
In the words of the Beach Boys, ‘This is the worst trip I’ve ever been on.’
Let’s not do it again, ever.