A Timeless Odyssey

Allures 45 (a thing of great practical beauty)

Valetta to Sardinia (790Nm behind us approximately 550Nm to Almerimar)

I found him, a foreigner lost without WiFi, sipping wine at the edge of the Old City. Little did I know that there was to be, quite a lot of wine sipping over the next 3 weeks. We walked down the hill to the boat, sipped some more wine and let the weary traveller catch up on a bit of sleep. We spent another day in Valetta, letting Marc at least see a bit of it but we needed to get on with our mission and make westing. On 6 May we made for Gozo, wishfully thinking we would have a stop for lunch at the blue lagoon. About halfway there the wind increased to 25 knots and it was straight on the nose. It was a sail and motor from hell, we probably should have given up and gone back to Valletta but we wanted to see Gozo, so we battled on, thankfully inside the harbour the wind was only 15 knots but it was challenging berthing. It was a magnificent setting, so we sipped some wine. On the Saturday, we took the Gozo hop-on-hop-off bus. It started well with the First Mate getting left behind at the first stop, as she opted for a walk in the gardens instead of doning a mandatory mask for the tourist shop. To give her credit though the bus driver did have an abridged idea of 10 minutes, the allocated time for the stop.

We got off at the Cittadella in the capital, Victoria, which is a magnificent fortress high in the centre of the island. From its ramparts there were magnificent views in every direction. Like many castles in the Med it had a long history starting with the Romans, who built an acropolis that was later converted to a Castle in the medieval period. The major construction took place between 1599 and 1622 by the Knights of St John. They were looking for a new home after being ousted from Rhodes. These guys were not taking any chances after the great siege in 1565, in which 500 knights and 9000 troops faced a Turkish fleet of 138 ships and 38000 troops that were also supported by the North African pirate Dragut. Hence, when they built the Cittadella 34 years later, they built it to be not only impenetrable but also beautiful and impressive. I think some parts of the series, Game of Thrones, were filmed there. We also visited the inland sea, which is, and this is my interpretation, a sinkhole in the limestone that has a cave through to the open sea. It is a unique piece of geomorphology. We had a lovely lunch there and sipped on a bit of wine with Marc. Gozo is a wonderful island with stunning architecture and landscapes, so we were sorry to have only spent one full day there but we had to go on west.

There was much studying of weather models and much debate about the 70Nm crossing to Licata, Sicily. It was going to be on the wind, potentially for 14 hours and after our experience getting to Gozo, when 16 knots predicted turned into 25-30 knots there was hesitancy. We decided to call it in the morning. It was an excellent call because even though it was a bit bumpy and on your ear at times, with two reefs in we nailed it in just over 12 hours with the wind backing in our favour all day and the last 15Nm sailed in light almost perfect conditions.
We took a day off in Licata, the weather was rainy and thundery, and we had laundry and shopping to catch up on. On our recommendation Marc took buses and trains to see Ragusa, which, inter alia, was the location for the opening scenes in the latest James Bond Movie, "A Time to Die". On the coast the rain was on and off but inland the blackness and the intensity of the weather was palpable even from the distance. He got very wet but loved Ragusa. Meantime, in between the shopping and rain showers, Veronica and I managed to climb up to the local Castle, which took us past the most expensive, most densely-packed, well-maintained and tended grave yard we've ever seen; it also had one of the best views of the town and harbour of any grave yard, the best views been given over to some huge mausoleums along its lower edge!

The ancient ruins at Agrigento (a.k.a. Valley of the Temples) beckoned and we made for San Leone. It was a deserted harbour where we spend a good 20 minutes trying to get noticed by someone. This included putting Marc ashore, strangely I think he thought there was a chance of falling in, so he stripped to his underpants, a look that was not really conducive to engaging and enquiring about berths with the locals but it provided a level of amusement for us. Ultimately, we were directed onto a pontoon and told to go alongside, clearly, they were not expecting crowds. Formalities were completed in a grubby little office with a grubby old man but it was € 50 and there was good security, gushing water and electricity, all included. As with so many of these places exploration in the afternoon gives you no sense of the place but as darkness fell the place came alive and we joined the "passeggiata" along the waterfront. It was the normal fare of children, prams, grandparents, people parading new clothes and fathers parading eligible daughters. We found a restaurant on the beach and had an excellent meal.

The next day we took a friendly taxi up to Agrigento where we were dropped at the top and spent several hours slowly descending past each of the temples and other interesting ruins and artifacts. In brief it was founded by the Greeks in 582BC, partially destroyed by the Romans, sacked by the Carthaginians (does this sound familiar?) and ultimately studied and partially restored, with the help of the Italians, by an English chap called Alexander Hardcastle.
It is an impressive place and well worth a visit, check out the gallery to get a better impression.

Westing, westing, westing, that is what we were doing but there had been no wind for several days, so we motored 30Nm to Sciacca that afternoon, flat calm and chill time on the boat for all but the one on watch at the time. We arrived at 16h00 as a threatening thunderstorm towered above us. Despite this, the evening was predicted to be dead calm, so we anchored outside the harbour under the cliffs. The thunderstorm was miraculously gone by 18h00 and we could braai and paddle board. This is the place where there is a story of a jilted bride in the early 1800's which started a family feud that lasted 100 years by which time half the town was dead. Marc and I went ashore to find a lively, busy fishing harbour with a certain Sicilian grubbiness that can also be perceived as charm, depending whether you cup is half full or half empty on the day. Ours was half full, we were however careful not to look at any women for fear of reigniting any of the local's murderous passions.

The interim goal was the Egadi islands, where we were planning to take some chill days and stage ourselves for a weather window to cross to Sardinia. We set off for Marsala, where the famous fortified wine comes from, which is produced using the perpetuum process. Motoring on a day that was supposed to have little wind. However, I had noticed a pattern of a little land-hugging afternoon blast in the shape of an elbow that crept around that corner of Sicily where it transitions from a south facing to a west facing coastline. We copped it and on our second long tack out we reconsulted the Pilot's Guide to see that on the next tack we could bail to Mazara del Vello, which is apparently Sicily's largest trawler port. It had a 1km long breakwater that provided an excellent, perfectly protected anchorage in 3m of water. The bonus was the restaurant, a short tender ride away. We had a great meal there and if anyone asks what Mazara del Vello is like, none of us could give any synopsis on the town since the restaurant and the anchorage were all we ever saw of it. We left early the next morning for Favignana, the closest and largest of the Egadi Islands. It was another mostly motoring day, although we did sail the last 6 Nm with the foresail out. We took a berth in the harbour for the first night, to get our bearings. It was €70 but with the water and the electricity and 3 of us on board it was worth it. Favignana, apparently takes its name from its shape, that of a butterfly. There is a high ridge of mountains (the abdomen) that dissects two flat sections (the wings). In the past it survived on a thriving but thoroughly brutal tuna industry, where nets were strung in the channel between the islands and tuna were gaffed and processed. The rather magnificent factory, long closed, still dominates the harbour area. There is a museum housed in part of it. Thankfully now only tuna line fishing is allowed and apparently the population numbers have recovered. The other industry was quarrying calcarenite blocks for building purposes. The entire eastern side of the island has the remnants of these quarries, often with modern day houses built in these pits where I suppose they are cool with lush gardens. The stone was incorrectly called tuff but it is of sedimentary origin. This building block industry was almost certainly surpassed by modern mass-produced cement blocks. It has left some interesting features along the coast and in places was mined using block and pillar methodology which has left some interesting caves.

We had about 5 days to kill waiting for a weather window. We explored the East of the island on the fold-up bikes and Marc and I hired electric mountain bikes the next day to go up to the castle and explore the western side of the island. It was a track of note and quite a climb. At the Col we met some Italian hikers and asked the way to the castle they pointed to a single track hiking trail which we rode for about 400m until it became unrideable. So, we locked the bikes to a dwarf pine and continued onwards and upwards expecting to find the castle as we summited. It turned out we had climbed the wrong peak and we could get to the castle from there, but it would have meant going through a dividing valley. We decided to give that a miss. Meantime Veronica had gone for a walk/run and had climbed 90% of the way up to the castle before getting lonely and returning to town for breakfast in the square. On the second night we moved off our quay wall, 100m away and anchored in a crystal clear shallow water sandy fairway, out of the way of the frequent hydrofoil and ferry traffic. It is a truly magical place. The day was "tranquillo" to use the lingua franca and all three of us put on our walking shoes and set out for the 310m ascent to Castello di Santa Caterina. There was a very well-made path all the way up, but it was a serious climb however, well worth it as the views were fantastic and the crystal-clear water all around the island made it a real spot for photography (check out the gallery).

On the third night we moved around the corner to a small cala where we anchored with 3 other boats on another "tranquillo" evening and night. I set the alarm to see the eclipse of the moon at 03h30 but somehow got up a half an hour too early and fell asleep again. Marc got some very good shots of the blood moon as it rose. We were narrowing down our weather window for the passage and had two days to kill still, so we sailed over to Marettimo. The Pilot's guide and all the Captains Mate reports spoke of pontoons. When we got there, there were no pontoons and no other yachts. We put Veronica ashore to use her best charm on the locals; this had little success and was a lost in translation exercise. We tried to go alongside but there was a wicked gnarly submerged ledge that did not allow you to fender off the wall. Eventually a trip boat operator with piccolo English told us that if we waited 20 minutes until the Hydrofoil came and went we could take his place, so we went out and drove around for a while. The ledge was less pronounced where he was but we still had to make a plan hanging wooden palette spacers off the wall and fendering onto those. We ended up with the local diving boat rafted onto us both nights but they were friendly accommodating and even lent us one of their enormous orange ball fenders. I thought it funny that the guy said I should tie it onto the wall rather than my boat in case I forgot and left with it. It was so big it would not have fitted anywhere in the boat and would have looked totally ridiculous outside it. It was a friendly gesture though and helped us. All our mooring missions were well worth it. The island turned out to be a real gem and the "turn back the hands of time" lifestyle was soothing for the soul. Interestingly Jamie Oliver had filmed some of his Italian cooking series here and on our last night on the island, we went to the restaurant (not his, he just used it as a location) and had a fantastic meal. No ordering, just pay one price and get 4 courses, no choices.

On the first day there, Marc went walk-about, for rather a long time in the afternoon wearing flip-flops. He came back in the early evening reporting, in a very understated way, this amazing walk to the castle that we must do. I hopped out of bed at sparrow's fart the next morning, unable to rouse the First Mate who was deeply entrenched in our pit. I later sent her several WhatsApp's and she formed the rear guard, 40 minutes behind. It was an epic walk carved out of cliffs and having to climb several times 150m up and down, high enough to skirt the top of the sea cliffs. A narrow and at times stony path but at critical stages with cement steps and even zig-zagging stairs at one point. It finally descended to 10m above sea-level before climbing the peninsula promontory up to the castle. Unfortunately, it was closed but in season you can have a tour. Despite this the walk was epic and well worth doing. The First Mate arrived at the castle 40 minutes later proclaiming the fortitude and grit she had had to muster to not turn back when the path got particularly narrow with precipitous edges. It was only on the way back that we read, and bothered to translate, the Italian sign at the beginning of the walk. It said NO FLIP-FLOPS, ONLY FOR EXPERIENCED HIKERS, PEOPLE THAT SUFFER FROM VERTIGO SHOULD NOT ATTEMPT THIS HIKE. Our nutter crew mate Marc had walked the whole thing the day before in flip-flops, if he had have had a rubber wishbone pop-out or snap he would have been in trouble.

We were back in town by 09h30 and being served breakfast by our new best friend Alice at the waterfront eatery. She was this whiff of a girl with a swashbuckling style, the type that you order from not being sure what you will get, but that is so pleasant and full of energy that you will take it anyway.

We left Marettimo at 10h00 on Wednesday 18 May 2022. The passage to Sardinia was sublime sailing with winds never exceeding 16 knots and mostly around 10 and sometimes 8. Sea state always slight. For 22 hours we had full sail up and barely made any sail adjustments. The moon was about 90% waning and there was no cloud. However, we had two bits of excitement in the night. As I came on watch there was suddenly a set of lights in front of us, with no AIS signal and when we turned the radar on there was a big dog's ball of a target 1.2Nm in front of us. We acquired it as a Mapra target and it was totally unclear what it was doing or which way to go around it. In the end we passed it staying well clear. It was almost certainly a fishing boat, sometimes they just drift while they tidy their nets and process their catch. The buggers should all have AIS but some don't and some don't turn it on for nefarious reasons like fishing in someone else's territorial waters. Then, in the wee hours of the morning Veronica came up to take over from me. There had been something in front of us, obviously going away from us and on the same heading. It had been there for a while and was not on radar or on the AIS. As well as this, abaft to the starboard and some 2.5Nm away there was a sailing boat called Ohara on the AIS, it was no threat but was slowly closing on us. The lights in front stayed for ages through Veronica's watch, finally either speeding up or turning south and disappearing. The First Mate invented this whole story about these two boats, parts of which may be real but mostly driven by a vivid imagination and paranoia about migrants. The large vessel in front was a warship, this bit could have credence as when we got to Sardinia it turns out there was a huge EU and UN naval exercise going on and while sailing around the southernmost tip of Sardinia we counted 8 warships around us at one moment in time, all stealthily and slowly going back and forth. Marc and I also saw some of these warships docked in Cagliari. The exercise was no doubt a bit of sabre-rattling for the benefit of Putin. Back to the boat in front of us, it could have been a warship, it was not on the radar and had no AIS, that gels as they never turn on AIS (if they indeed have it) and they can either jam the radar or they have hull and topside designs that deflect it. Anyway, the first mate invented this story that Ohara was a boat with migrants on it and the warship was tracking it, or perhaps it was tracking us. My real point here is there was no hard evidence for either but hey, it kept the First Mate awake on her watch with Marc and was a good story and debate for the next few days.

We arrived in Villasimius in Sardinia at about 13h30 after a 27 ½ hour passage. We spent a day in a marina and then anchored outside the marina off an amazing beach. This area is incredibly picturesque with lovely beaches and interesting wind and sea sculptured granite formations. From here we hopped 20NM to Cagliari where we anchored off a very busy beach. Marc and I dinghy-ed into the harbour, locked up the dinghy and cycled into Cagliari town. Marc was leaving us the next day and needed to do a recce and buy a train ticket. Sadly this day was marred by the fact that when we got back, our oars and a few other stainless fittings had been stolen from the dinghy. This really grates me particularly since oars are really critical pieces of safety equipment.

We had a magical farewell dinner with Marc, who taught us quite a lot about sipping wine (not that we needed lessons) and was the most fantastic, sensitive and helpful crew member. Thank you, Marc!

We have now covered over 800Nm from Preveza and have about 550Nm to go to get to Almerimar and a month to do it in. Right now the Mistral is sticking it's big red tongue out of the Gulf of Lyon quite a bit and that is not good for a crossing to the Balearics. We shall just have to wait and watch. Sorry, this was a long one, adios until next time.