Greetings from the Leeward Isles
31 May 2013 | Nevis
Greetings from the Leeward Islands,
We’re now about a month before Mary Ann comes out of the water for hurricane season when we’ll spend about four months doing land-based travelling in the American West. So far this season things have been more settled than last year. The strong northerly component of the trade winds didn’t turn the run north from Grenada into a bash. We spent a few weeks in the Grenadines but then rushed along to Dominica, the first island which was new to us both. From there we’ve spent several weeks in Guadeloupe, a French province. The Jacque Cousteau Marine Park had some of the best reef fish snorkeling we’ve seen and our dolphin experience in the north of Guadeloupe was an extraordinary treat. As citizens of the EU we perused the Guadeloupe estate agents (real estate offices) thinking maybe when we can’t sail the open seas that it would be a nice place to settle. Top notch health care and first world goods and services make the French Islands appealing. We were particularly enamoured with a quiet fishing village on the north coast of Guadeloupe. But we’re hoping not to give up the vagabond life for at least a decade.
Antigua has been a treat, its hard to believe that being posted here in Nelson’s time was considered major hardship (then again we aren’t expected to dress in heavy wool jackets with powdered wigs, etc.) We began our stint in Falmouth Harbour, adjacent to English Harbour, where Nelson was commander shortly before Trafalgar. It’s the only Georgian dockyards in the world still working and atmosphere is colonial with a twist of lime. One of the highlights in Antigua was crewing on one of the classic yachts which come for the annual regatta (about 70% parade and 30% race.) The old wooden schooners and ketches, lovingly restored are a fabulous sight out competing in the Caribbean Sea. We sailed with Gaucho, a fabulous wooden ketch built in Argentina, the first large private yacht ever built there. She’s been a love affair for her owners, John and Ronnie, for over 25 years who ply her up and down the Caribbean.
Unlike most of the islands further south Antigua has a number of lovely anchorages on the eastern shore where you anchor behind fringing reef. About 80% of the coral in the Eastern Caribbean was killed off in two very serious beaching events (ocean waters were too hot) in 2005 and 2010 and more often than not you see algae-covered dead coral. However, near Bird Island in Antigua we saw evidence of a slow come back of the beautiful Elk Horn corals. Brain corals tend to be more resistant to the overheating but most of the Stag Horn and Elk Horn has died off. Doubtlessly this has grossly impacted biodiversity on the reefs but many reef fish species remain plentiful. Presumably the South Pacific has faired better than the Caribbean with a steady but less precipitous decline in coral populations and we hope to get back there whilst that is still the case.
We sailed with my old friend Scott to Barbuda, about 40 miles north of Antigua, a unique island lacking mountains and having only about 1100 people on 60 square miles. There are only two very pricey hotels and a few guest houses, so there are almost no tourists. Thousands of frigate birds, the largest of the sea birds, nest there in the mangroves. One of the beaches is 14 miles long and rarely has a single visitor. We got to do some lovely snorkeling and visited a large sink hole where you looked down onto the tops of large coconut palms.
Recently we’ve went to Monserrat, famous for its volcanic eruptions. The bottom half of the island is an exclusion zone covered in ash and debris. From the Volcano observation centre you can see the caldera with active fumaroles. The film we saw of the pyroclastic flows was fascinating, awe inspiring and a bit terrifying. Although the volcano was not as deadly as island’s biggest hurricane, Hugo, in terms of deaths, the impact has perhaps been greater. Currently only about 20% of the population who lived here prior to the eruptions remain. The capital city, Plymouth, is covered with volcanic debris up to 60 feet deep but the northern half of the island is lush and green. We found a brilliant restaurant for our anniversary dinner with walls of thick philodendron, looking onto a beautiful western sky where fresh king fish and all the extras was about the price of fish and chips in Britain. Oh and the rum punch was much better.
Our final destination before returning to Antigua is Nevis and St Kitts. Nevis is an island consisting of one large volcanic cone -- it’s round with the contour of a sombrero. The remnants of the sugar plantations have made lovely hotels and estates. The best known is the Montpelier estate, where Lord Nelson married Fanny Nesbit, his Nevesian wife. An american has developed a stunning bontanical and sculpture gardens there and it has hosted British royalty including Princess Di. We got an American history lesson about the US’s first Secretary of Treasury, Alexander Hamilton. Born on Nevis out of wedlock, orphaned at age 12, he becomes Washington’s aide de camp and was a key driver in penning the US constitution. He co-authored the Federalist Papers, which are credited with swinging support to ratify the constitution. Before age 50 he died in a duel with the Arron Burr, who came within a hair’s breadth of beating Jefferson in the 4th presidential race.
Life is not all idyllic in the Caribbean as evidenced by Julia needing to have both a dental implant and a root canal. Rains are getting a bit more frequent and there are even spurts when the trade winds fizzle out for a couple days. Murphy continues to hone his crab hunting skills and refuses to behave like a 70 year old in dog years. Many boats are now heading south for the hurricane season and we’re getting more anchorages to ourselves. In a couple of weeks we’ll be putting Mary Ann to be “bed” for her summer hibernation and starting to think of snow capped peaks, geysers and grizzly bears.
John, Julia and Murphy the Crabmeister
Thoughts from the mid-Atlantic
30 December 2011 | Bridgetown Barbados
About midway from Africa to the CaribbeanThis Atlantic passage is the last big ocean passage before I am officially a circumnavigator. After this the Caribbean Sea and a mere 1800 miles west of the Panama Canal when Mary Ann II, myself and Ruby (at least her ashes) will have crossed our previous longitude. Mary Ann has been as far east as Texas but alas made her first trip back to California, where she was built, by truck which doesn't really count. Time and miles fly when you're having fun. Julia has already got about 8,000 sea miles and Murphy isn't far behind that. He's now become very interested in taking regular strolls on deck to check for flying fish. He, like Ruby before him, now goes nuts when he hears the sounds of a big fish brought into the cockpit. He knows that very fresh shushumi is soon to be on the menu.
About 1000 miles from either the Caribbean or Africa, Julia and I were on deck chatting when we passed a pod of five sperm whales. These are the largest of all toothed whales, they all looked to be adults none less than 30 feet long, probably females. We could see their heads to their dorsal fin. These guys dive thousands of feet deep and eat the giant squids which live on the bottom -- you know like the one that Captain Nemo battled with in 20,000 Leagues under the Sea. Sperm whale is also the species that Melville wrote about in Moby Dick. We were less than 100 feet from the nearest. What a thrill. I couldn't think of a species that I would have rather seen on this passage, well maybe a mermaid. Of course just when we thought this was a sighting of a lifetime, well a few days later we sailed up next to a 45 foot bull Sperm Whale (females don't get that big) who was swimming south. He was about 40 feet from our midships when he clearly turns, raises his head to get a better look and then passes a boat length (32 feet) from our stern. Wow!
Yesterday was the midway across celebration. That came about 10 days after leaving but would have come about 6-7 days into the trip if we had not spent 4 days shadowing a boat with a disabled rudder. The occasion was celebrated with a can of beer each, our first alcohol on passage. We have a bottle of cava for Christmas, which will most likely come whilst at sea. We had anticipated a sixteen day passage which was reasonably accurate thus far if we had not detoured on a rescue mission. A well known marine writer, Lynn Pardey, once lamented her long ocean passage being half over but with our spate of variable winds and somewhat nasty cross-swell, I don't think she would have likely lamented this present North Atlantic westerly passage.
It is my impression that most people define the cruising life by ocean passages, coral reef and beautiful sunsets, etc. These are indeed some of the very special aspects of the boatie life. Another feature of cruising which is very different is the rather deep and enduring camaraderie with other cruisers. We would consider ourselves reasonably social, a couple who enjoy a night out or getting together with friends. We currently spend a vastly greater proportion of our time socializing than we ever did in York. You might say well, John, you are retired of course you do, but I suspect that most retired people aren't regularly making new friends and socializing three or four nights a week with them. No, it most probably is the intensity of the life style - sure its relaxing but there are the squalls, the adverse swell, the gauntlet of regulations and procedures for each country, the shared language in a land of tongues, etc. Virtually all of us did other things and have segued our hobby, passion, pastime into a lifestyle. None of us have all the skills that are required, really - navigator, radio operator, engine mechanic, carpenter, fiberglass technician, medic, fireman, electrician, cook, refrigeration technician, plumber, I wouldn't go on. Sharing skills and knowledge is a big part of the pleasure out here. It's not really like other ways to retire. Common passions, common headaches and constant flow of local knowledge between the early arrivers and late arrivers to an anchorage make for a sense of camaraderie which quickly cements social bonds.
A particular facilitator of that quick building of friendships is something called the net (not the internet). We have been participating in a radio net called the Magellan Net. Since the spring, it has been aimed at boats heading west from the eastern Med. When boats are on passage there is a check-in time each day and boats share their position, the weather, fishing report and general information. If a boat is in trouble then boats nearby can divert and assist. Even though I will possibly never meet half the boats on the net, when we do there is a sense of belonging. In a few more weeks when most boats have arrived in the Caribbean, the Magellan Net will have to reinvent itself for boats continuing west to the Pacific or wait for some later resurrection. But for now there are about 40 boats, that if we sail into an anchorage and see them, we would certainly dink over and say you must be so and so; we're John and Julia from Mary Ann II. Maybe these friendships aren't so enduring but they are intense, meaningful, fun and last until we are scattered to the wind.
This paragraph I am writing shortly after 0000 Greenwich time on the winter solstice. The festivities at Stonehenge are no doubt proceeding as a zany, wacky, hippie'ish, very non-British spectacle about now. Here on Mary Ann II our improbably large genniker (looks a little bit like a parachute in light blue and violet) is tugging us through some currently wimpy trade winds and the stars, oh gosh, the stars. With the GPS dimmed to night vision then the only other light is a very small LED from the compass, so your night vision is at its peak. In the burbs I used to go weeks and months without ever really using my scotopic visual system when fully dark adapted (it takes about twenty minutes). Oh, and talk about no light pollution, it's now been a week since we even saw another boat and that one we intentionally rendezvoused with. As is always the case (at least for tens of thousands of years) on the solstice at about 0000 GMT Taurus is straight over head. This is my birth / sun sign, now I am not into astrology but from an astronomy point of view, I may have the easiest sun sign there is to find. The most recognizable star constellation in the sky, Orion's belt, points right at it. Taurus is essentially a large V and this V right now is pointing straight at Barbados, our destination. Now that's what I'd call my own personal star to steer by! As for this being the first day of winter lets just say that we're sailing in a climate where sometimes your swimming costume (suit) makes you feel a bit over dressed. It would be miserably hot without the trade winds. Oh, by the way being winter in the northern hemisphere and being only 700 n miles from the equator we can see both the Southern Cross and the North Star in the same sky.
Our plan is to spend the non-hurricane season until June in the southern Antilles, known as the Windward Islands. We're starting at the most easterly, Barbados and then hope to work our way around the 250 mile stretch between Martinique and Trinidad. We're scheduled to be back in jolly old England in late June but till then we hope to see a lot of coral reef, tropical sunsets, umbrella drinks and green flash.
As a sort of p.s. to the mid-Atlantic theme: we arrived in Bridgetown Barbados on the afternoon of Christmas. At dawn that morning when we were approaching the island, we were greeted by a pod of dolphins from the "Hello Mon, Welcome to the Caribbean" committee. We got ourselves checked into immigration, customs and health. Murphy's a species non-gratis and is not impressed with their antiquated quarantine rules. We're hoping to do some land based tourism--see George Washington's house (yes, he did sleep here -- go figure); botanical gardens and maybe even a rum distillery. We're then off to the Grenadines. We'll post some shots on face book, sorry no whale shots - you just don't go rummaging around looking for your camera when a 40 plus ton whale comes by for a brief visit.
Wishing you all fair winds,
john, Julia and Murphy
Notes from the Cabo Verdes
30 November 2011 | Mindelo, St Vicient, Cabo Verdes
Greetings from the Cabo Verdes,
In our last message from Mary Ann we had hoped for about a month in the Canary Islands and then to head for the Cape Verde Islands which are about 750 miles south. Only a very few boat crossing the Atlantic don't stop over in the Canaries as it is the minimum 'southing' to catch the trade winds. The Canaries have been a regular "jumping off" spot for the Americans since Christopher Columbus's first voyage. Well despite being part of the EU things tended to take forever to arrive by air freight so we ended up spending a couple of months in the Canaries. On the whole we were thoroughly charmed. As a mass tourism destination for Europeans, somewhat analogous to Hawaii in the US, we had rather low expectations for the islands. This was perhaps lowered even further being part of Spain's tourist industry. What we encountered were friendly, warm people who were proud of their islands and in most instances had not allowed every square inch of beach to be covered with concrete, egg carton-like construction. There were even interesting museums and art galleries, a well entrenched café culture and lots of natural beauty.
As a sailor you get a slightly different feel of a place and its inhabitants than as a hotel guest. In Gran Canaria we spent a month trolling the boat chandleries, sail maker, electronics shop, numerous hardware stores, electric shops, finding a stainless steel supplier, TIG welder, a machinist, etc. Although these are certainly service industries, they survive in small places by providing things which often nobody else has. Being charming and gracious does not happen because they have quarterly training sessions on 'customer satisfaction' - no they are kind, proud people with a sense of community who are generous with their smiles and their help.
The Canaries are not tropical they miss that distinction by around 250 miles but the climate was very hospitable and winter is not dissimilar to that say in the Bahamas. In fact one climatological institute declared it one of the best climates on the planet. There are seven main islands all volcanic in origin and like Hawaii there is current volcanic activity on El Hiero, the smallest island. The largest island, Tenerife, boasts the highest mountain in all of Spain and the massive area surrounding this volcanic cone is a moonscape which reminded me of some of those other-worldly areas in Death Valley. Although relatively dry, say compared to the Caribbean, the higher mountain slopes on the windward side of most of the islands are covered in beautiful pine forests and dotted with quaint towns and villages often with a conspicuous lack of unfettered development. There are even a number of rain forests on several islands. The Canaries certainly do have their areas of gross overdevelopment with sections of concrete coast, lined with tourist restaurants, trinket shops and bars but on the other hand without those, there would be no £79 flights back to the UK. Everything seems to come with a price. Despite seeing very little rain in months and virtually none in the Canaries, the one day that Julia got a chance to go horseback riding in southern Tenerife, it rained so hard the riding got cut short an hour (she still loved it.)
We often have a theoretical conversation of "when we're too old for the cruising life" where will we settle? We have fallen in love with lots of places and have nixed plenty, but the Canaries have won their way to the top of that list. As we age and health care concerns become more of an issue, then being part of the EU is a big consideration so I suspect that the Canaries may just stay at the top of the list.
Our passage to the Cabo Verde islands was on the whole uneventful but demonstrated how despite their size, the oceans are one giant driver of climate and weather. Modern technology, which is much more reliable than in the nineties when I last cruised, allows us to get reasonably accurate wind predictions for about a week ahead. These predictions have been more accurate in the ocean than they were in the Med. We left the Canaries on a 750 mile trek to the Cabo Verdes expecting light winds for a day and then trade wind type conditions for about the next five. The passage took 6 day and 7 hours. What we didn't quite expect was that a very strong low pressure system, which had formed over northwestern Atlantic, 2000 miles away, would send large swell from the northwest, which when combined with the normal wind driven waves from the northeast would give us the feeling of spending six days in a washing machine. No safety risk or real hazard but not the most relaxing of passages. I say no risks but in fact cooking is a concern in rolly seas (my only serious injury in 50 years of sailing was a scald) and the other is that insidious old villain - fatigue. We both got through a few novels and watched few decent videos, collected six flying fish off the decks, watched some beautiful starry nights and followed the same route as Columbus, Vasco de Gama, Magellan, Humboldt and Drake along the Portuguese trades.
So far the Cabo Verdes feel very much like Africa more than the European feel of the Canaries. The wealthiest country in western Africa, the GNP per capita is $1400 (US). We are on the island of Sal which means salt. Their only export for years was - you guessed it - salt. They used to pump sea water into an extinct volcanic crater and let it evaporate. The onslaught of modern refrigeration to preserve meat and fish instead of salt killed this industry but it is an interesting attraction, complete with a tunnel into the crater. The port town is not very prosperous but no one looks malnourished except some of the poor dogs. There is a fairly small area of shanty-town near the main town which we're told is mostly Nigerians and Senegalese. Mussolini built an airport here for the southern transatlantic air routes when refueling was an issue and this has spawned the current tourist industry. The mass development has only affected the southern end of this island and us yachties feel like we might as well be in Senegal up here in the north. The coast line is really spectacular and we were quite mesmerized by the geyser-like plumes of breaking surf at one of the rocky coves. The main attraction of Sal is its kite surfing beaches which look quite fantastic. As the wind is coming from the Sahara desert then over only 175 miles of ocean on its way here this island is very dry and even boasts a reliable desert mirage. Many of the other 10 Cabo Verdes islands, being much higher get much more rain especially on the sides facing the trade winds. Despite there being lots of dogs here, which appear generally ignored, the children in the port vie with each other to pet him and to hold his lead, a real local celebrity. Thus far: friendly people; no boat boys extorting money to 'watch' your dinghy like the Caribbean and the classic tropical attitudes towards bureaucracy - we've been trying to check into the country for three days.--Manana, manana....
One of my favourite saying is "we have no plans and we're sticking to them." So maybe we'll leave the Cabo Verdes in early December, maybe later. If they do turn out to be "like the Caribbean before it got spoiled" well we probably won't rush off. We'll see.
Wishing you all fair winds.
Julia, John and Murphy
Greetings from the Canaries
13 September 2011 | Lazarote, Canaries
1 September 2011
Greetings from the Canary Islands,
In our last instalment we were heading for Algeria, Morocco and Gibraltar to pick up our friend, Mark. Well cruising in Europe has perhaps made us a bit blasé about custom, immigration and quarantine, and when we were ready to pack off for Algeria found that we would need a visa prior to arrival. Oh well, so we changed plans to a somewhat more northerly route of Sardinia, Mallorca and then Costa del Sol, Spain. As our Italian friend told us, "Sardinia is the birth place of Western Italian wind"; meaning the wind blows at you when going and blows you away when leaving. We in fact were met a few hours from arrival in Sardinia with a gale, and had to sit on the boat at anchor for three days till it quieted down. Then we had a repeat performance on the western side of Sardinia waiting about four days for winds to stop blowing the wrong way. As time millionaires this would usually make little difference but our friend Mark was arriving in Malaga on a date certain from California, so we pushed along pretty hard across the Balearics to the coast of Spain where we kept waiting out strong winds in several anchorages and marinas. After the usual drama of waiting four days to get parts packages delivered from one side of Malaga to the other (one of which never came), we finally got off for the Canaries. The passage included a stop in Gibraltar and one in Morocco.
Mid Passage Morocco to Canaries: We're a bit over half way to the Canary Islands from Gibraltar. The sky is dark with cloud and the ocean is putting on one of its electric light shows. Dinoflagellates which are biolumenescent (mostly noctiluca) are leaving a trail behind Mary Ann at least a hundred meters long and the waves are likes little kernels of light being heaved about. Sitting on the foredeck you can see the occasional fish racing out of the way of Mary Ann like a shooting star with a comet-like tail trailing behind. On nights like this seeing dolphins at the bow of the boat is little short of magic as they are like the effect of waving sparklers around on a dark night, zipping through the water at remarkable speed. But if you want the real electric light show try flushing the head with the lights out and the lid up! Visually these nights remind me of the film Avatar when the hero is walking through the forest at night and everything is alive with light when touched. Sailing has its magical times.
It is not quite two months since leaving Croatia and we've covered about 2,100 miles. Cruising is as much about leaving things in your wake as all the new and fascinating things you encounter. We have opted for coral reef and trade winds this year and thus have breezed through Sardinia, the Balearics and southern Spain. The Med is a bit notorious for contrary winds and it has dished out it fair share this summer and when we had to deal with calms using the motor, contrary seas have rocked and rolled us about as well.
Mark Elkins joined us for the third time. He met us near Gibraltar in Spain and came along for the 620 mile passage to the Canaries. We've encountered a very surprising number of fishing boats off Africa where long lining is common up to twenty miles offshore. There of lots of men in 16 foot skiffs very far off shore. Morocco was a short but very interesting stop over. We got to Casa Blanca and had a fascinating walk through the old Medina and lunch at Rick's Café but Sam wasn't at the piano.
The fight against wear and tear has been intense of late. I spent about three days tracking down a leak which I thought was fixed years ago while in Spain. In Sicily we changed the seals on the transmission, patched one water tanks and reconfigured the bow pulpit. In following winds and big following seas the stay sail traveler broke. Upon arriving in the Canaries I decided to get the Sideband radio working and then the fridge compressor packed in. Cruising has been described as fixing things in exotic places, which feels apropos of late but this is also likely in part the consequence of a 27 year love affair with the same boat - now that's monogamy for you.
The other big news and relief of the past months was that in Sardinia, Murphy final started to use the foredeck for his business. Hurray!
Lanzarote's austere, almost surreal landscape of volcanoes, lava fields and ash everywhere has been strangely beautiful. Standing atop a magma dome where only 4 meters down the temperatures was 400 degrees C is just a bit spooky. At the volcano park the BBQ grill was merely a hole some 20 feet deep over which chicken was placed. No one would ever believe grapes could grow here but it has a thriving wine industry. The stark contrast of the white only buildings and the black ash gives the island a rather unique and haunting appeal.
We hope for about a month in the Canary Islands and then to head for the Cape Verde Islands which are about 750 miles south. In late November to early December we'll cross to the Caribbean. By that time the hurricanes will have stopped and the trade winds in the Atlantic will make the passage a bit of a milk run.
We may not have very good internet access in the Cape Verdes so our next missive may well be from Barbados or St Vincent.
john, Julia and Murphy
S/Y Mary Ann II
Italy and Croatia
31 July 2011 | Croatia
Greetings from Greece, Italy and Croatia,
Whilst waiting in Corfu for an elusive Sirroco wind from Africa to carry us to Croatia we hatched a new plan to work our way up the Adriatic Coast of Italy as far as Vieste, (on the spur of the boot.) and then cross on the more common north-westerly winds to Croatia. The weather did not proven ideal and several times we joined the local fishing fleet to wait out the strong wind. We spent one day in the small port of Molfetta being buffeted onto an ancient limestone quay in a gale and then getting a proper deluge, only to then have a quiet night tucked between trawlers.
We creped up the Italian coast mostly with contrary winds spending a couple days in Otranto, one in Brindisi, Bari and a few in Molfetta. All these towns have gorgeous medieval areas next to the port surrounded by the less scenic but ubiquitous concrete three and four story flats. Shops are small with only the slightest hint of brand name penetration and being Italy there are eight clothing stores for every grocer. In one fishing port, when we were buying two extra large boat fenders, the chandelier gave me a stainless steel pocket knife with his shop's name embossed on it as a souvenir and another shop owner walked out into the driving rain to show us the way to another shop. The fishermen were also very helpful and friendly. We were chuffed to to have a lovely three course meal for two with a liter of local wine for 20 euro's. We keep toying with the idea that when we're a bit too long in the tooth for sailing then Southern Italy would perhaps be just the right doce vita for two old sailors. Oh, but that time is years off. Our last port of call in Italy was Vieste with a lovely medieval walled city, several light houses, a large stone pinnacle, an ancient fort, beautiful limestone cliffs and lots of pizzarias. Of course as soon as we had made all the 'north'ing we needed then the north wind totally fizzled out but I can think of worse places to get stuck.
Croatia was billed as being very expensive, onerous bureaucracy, and with a steady stream of anchoring fees. None of this has proven true, although there have been numerous harbours which charge, we have found lovely anchorages without any fees. After about two weeks we've paid a total of 6 euros in anchoring fees and bought one reasonably priced meal at a restaurant with free moorings for patrons. Two of the islands have only been opened to tourist for only ten years. Lastovo has changed from a military outpost to a national park and was not only lovely but had fantastic walking trails. Vis was a British base during WWII and there is a British military cemetery which dates to the Napoleonic Wars. We dinked into a submarine pen built into a hillside (déjà vu of Das Boot) and traipsed through a tunnel system of gun bunkers similar to those in Normandy. The towns are mostly built of beautiful Korcula limestone with the ubiquitous red tile roofs. Shops are somewhat sparce, which may be a left over of a socialist economy but the lack of glaring commercialism is, I find, more refreshing than inconvenient.
Croatia has a thriving charter boat industry but with numerous coves, nooks and crannies we rarely feel very crowded. The waters are very clear due to islands cutting off the silt from the coastal rivers; 30 to 40 feet visibility is not unusual. There are a great deal more fish in the water than in Greece, which is I believe is in direct proportion to the number of fishing boat. The Croatians don't seem to hold to the Greek maxim: "that if it swims; eat it." I recently splurged and did a diving trip on a wreck. It was an American- built steam ship from the 1880's that sunk in the thirties. The highlight was feeding several massive conger eels about four feet long and the diameter of my calf. We also did a short trip to a sea cave which is lit by an under water opening such that in the morning, the light in the cave comes from the floor in a gorgeous deep blue. Julia also got to see her first ever live snake in the wild - two small and harmless (garter-like) snakes
Hvar felt like a taste of Venice. The Venetians colonized many of the Adriatic islands and once they had built a commanding fort overlooking Hvar's harbour the town managed to repell the Turks repeatedly. The main town square was once a canal and one of the main shopping areas is converted from shipping warehouses. The town's picturesque character is also enhanced by the absence of cars (another similarity to Venice.) The beautiful white marble stone from the area was used in building the American White House. Next week we're off to Diocletian's Palace in Split. Croatia is proving a nice blend to quiet, remote and picturesque coves with plenty of lovely medieval architecture and even a splash of Roman and Greek ruins. The reputation of Croatia as one of the best cruising grounds anywhere is proving accurate but of course the real secret to enjoying the boatie life is to become a bit enamoured with every place you go.
We been meeting many cruisers along the way and swapping advice on anchorages and nice spots. We plan to spend another month here and then make dash for Gibraltar and the Atlantic.
John, Julia and Murphy.
Greeting from Central Med
07 July 2011 | Sardinia
Mid July 2011
Greetings from the central Mediterranean:
Some places where you sail, and then try to write about end up sounding like musings on geography, a topic for which North American are often maligned for their limited knowledge. In describing other places it’s the history that brings it to life. Eastern or central Mediterranean history appears ripe with anomalies and modern day Croatia is full of historic contradictions. I think to really appreciate the late Roman Empire when it resurged as a Christian empire under Constantine in Asia then the story really begins in Dalmatia (as Croatia was known to the Romans) with Emperor Diocletian. Born of rather ignoble parentage in Dalmatia, he is an example of how in times of real stress (the Roman Empire was very clearly crumbling) that the military can take on the form of a meritocracy. Diocletian was sort of the Colin Powell of his day, who was acknowledged emperor first by the Roman Army. He removes Rome as the Capital of the empire, sets up the rule of four (4 co-emperors), changes the tax system, initiates the biggest building program in world history (or as Monty Python put it “What did the Romans ever do for us?”) He then decides to retire (not really an option in the past for Roman emperors) and builds a palace the size of six football pitches near the important city of Solana in modern day Croatia. After retirement he lives in his palace on the Dalmatian coast for over a decade. His retirement palace then becomes Split, a city which makes it through to modern times with all the foundations of his original palace in tact. Diocletian sets the stage for Constantine, who is sort of York’s home town boy, as he is stationed in York when he becames co-emperor shortly after Diocletian’s rule. Constantine adopts Christianity as state religion makes Constantinople the real capital of Rome and that schism in the Christian world remains a core issue to this day. The recent wars here in the Balkans in the nineties (known in Croatia as the Homeland War) can attest to that grand divide with the Serbians being orthodox Christians and the Croatians Catholic Christians. One of the most interesting and little known facts in Croatian history is that long before Martin Luther, the Croatians were using a Croatian (non-Latin) bible and some people suggest that this identification was the main impetus why the Turks were unable to subjugates large swathes of the Dalmatian coast (although I doubt the Venetians would agree with that hypothesis.)
With regards to geography, we have sailed further north -- above the Arctic Circle if you count an afternoon on a replica Viking long boat. This is the furthest north I have skippered a boat or sailed Mary Ann. We’re on a parallel with the Bay of Fundy and the furthest north I’ve sailed as proper crew was Block Island, Rhode Island, which is several hundred miles south of our recent wanderings in the Adriatic.
The contrasts in Croatia ranged from hundreds of quiet remote anchorages with crystal clear water; numerous medieval towns mostly built of beautiful white marble with marble paved streets; a stunning series of water falls (which provided the world’s second hydroelectric system just after Niagara Falls); five world heritage sites; stunning Roman ruins, a coastline with hundreds of cove-strewn islands and cities the like of Split, Trogir and Dubrovnik.
Recently we’ve been working our way west. Being time millionaires we don’t have too many schedules to fuss with but one time frame with which you must comply is the seasonal appearance of revolving tropical storms, known variously by the names: hurricanes, cyclones or typhoons. Since we plan to spend the next hurricane-free time in the Caribbean we have to start our way west as we have about 4800 miles to cover (a fifth of the earth’s diameter). We have begun the most trying part of this plan – getting across the Med. The Atlantic is a doddle due to a tropical phenomenon know as the trade winds, but the Med has winds in all directions, all strengths, complete with expensive marinas when you have to wait for better conditions. We’re working our way across Italy with reasonably cooperative winds thus far, at least not often contrary winds. Cruising highlights have been the cetaceans.. Mary Ann was visited by a pod of dolphins who cavorted around us for about forty-five minutes, and then off the coast of northern Sicily we had a close encounter with a pod of five Risso’s dolphins. They are about the size of pilot whales and are rather rare. One of our last stops was the island of Vulcano, which is about 15 miles from Stromboli. The crater still smokes and hot sulphurous water boils up in the sea for a salty hot tub effect. We took a mud bath in a hot grey mud pool but somehow I am not convinced that the smell of rotten eggs is particularly therapeutic.
Thus far a big challenge has been to keep the carbon footprint to a minimum, i.e. not using the engine too much. When we are favoured by the wind gods we try to just keep going but lately there’s been little wind at all. There is also the complication of having a lovely old sailboat which I bought as a mere lad of 37, so time out for maintenance is a factor, this time a leaky water tank and a leaky transmission seal. We thought Palermo would be a good place to get some of this work done, as it has ¾ of a million people, is the capital of the largest island in the Med and Julia could pursue the historic sites while the chief engineer worked. The only wrinkle in our plans was the unforeseen holiday of Santa Rosaria with fantastic fireworks, a stunning parade but workshops all shut down for four days. On the bright side the pizza is cheap and delicious, I am a fan of Marsala and Julia is getting private guided tours of some amazing palazzos.
From here we’re off to Sardinia then Algeria, Morocco and Gibraltar. An old friend and sailing buddy Mark is flying to Spain to meet us for the leg to the Canaries. Murphy likes the Italians’ generally dog-friendly attitudes. We’re looking forward to North Africa and Mary Ann’s first sail in the Atlantic.
John, Julia and Murphy