On Saturday 22 September 2018 we said farewell to Crete, setting off back up towards the Southern Ionian on the first leg of our journey to our winter berth in Sicily. We had a 26 hour passage ahead of us to Kalamata Marina in Greece, where we would await a reasonable 3-day weather window to make the crossing to Sicily and with the weather starting to build all across the Mediterranean, we knew we might have to stick around in Kalamata for a quite a while.
Under an overcast sky we motored out of Chania Town Harbour in light southerly winds, grateful for the calmer weather but a little apprehensive about the journey ahead of us. We had experienced some pretty feisty weather during our time in Crete and it was looking like there was still more to come.
By lunchtime the sky had cleared, the wind had come around and with a steady 10-15 knots and calm seas we were sailing comfortably back towards Greece. We both settled ourselves into the cockpit and took turns to take the helm and keep a look out, dosing in the warm sunshine and enjoying the peaceful conditions.
The day passed uneventfully and as the light began to fade the air became suddenly very chilly, making us both very aware of summer drawing to a close. Thankfully the weather was calm enough for us to enjoy a very civilized supper together – a hearty bowl of soya chilli each, which I had made previously in preparation for the journey. When planning for longer passages we always try to pre-prepare meals that can be scrambled together quickly and easily, so that if conditions are rough, no-one has to stay down below cooking for very long (uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous when the boat is heeled over or rolling around in high seas!!).
Dressed in foulies and lifejackets we watched the sun go down and with very little boat traffic around, we sailed peacefully into the night.
I took first watch at 8pm and under a moonlight sky I was given a good view of the sea all around us.
The radar and AIS (Automatic Identification System) we have onboard are great tools for night sailing – the radar shows all objects, (boat or otherwise) within a 12 nautical mile radius of us – AIS gives data (size of vessel, origin, destination, speed, under sail or motor, position etc) on any boat within a rough radius of 20-30 nautical miles of us. But, boats will only show up on AIS if they themselves have AIS installed, so the combination of both tools helps us to navigate our way safely through the darkness.
During the night the wind remained steady and my watches passed fairly quickly amusing myself with my Duolingo French practice and listening to music. The calmer conditions meant that I was able to persuade Damian to go down below for some proper rest, instead of ‘cat-napping’ in the cockpit and the usual night passage Cadbury’s and flask of strong coffee helped to keep us both going during our on-watch times.
As we drew closer to Greece the sea became lumpy and confused and the strong currents were making it difficult to make any headway, so we dropped our sails and decided to motor the rest of the way into Kalamata. We had emailed ahead to book our berth, so we were able to call up the marina on our VHF Radio as drew closer to the breakwater and were directed to our designated pontoon.
Kalamata Marina was busy with boats being settled in for winter and with visitors like us looking for a safe haven to wait out the weather, which was building across the Mediterranean. Kalamata has a ‘liveaboard’ community over winter and the marina was buzzing with people, all happy to stop and chat and swap stories of their summer adventures.
Over the next few days we pottered around the boat doing jobs (there’s always something that requires causing internal chaos for Damian to do!) giving the boat a thorough clean inside and out and making good use of the marina’s laundry facilities to give all the guest bedding and towels a good wash, vacuum packing and stowing it all away ready for winter.
We walked into town in pursuit of a chandlery store, seeking out some new ropes for tying up the boat alongside. Ours were looking rather frail and distressed after some of the battering they had taken during our time in Crete and were desperately in need of replacing.
We continued to watch the weather and were dismayed to see a mini hurricane making it’s way across the med, heading towards Greece via the exact path that we needed to take.
The pictures on Windy.com and the Predict Wind App we use painted a scary picture of what was to come and we knew we had no chance of leaving the marina any time soon. All we could do was wait and hope that the marina was well equipped to deal with the impact.
Mediterranean Hurricane (Medicane) ‘Zorba’ arrived in Kalamata early morning on Saturday 29 September and hit the marina with its mighty force. Winds beyond anything we had ever experienced previously assaulted the whole marina.
The sea came crashing over the breakwater and boats all over the marina were straining against their mooring lines, being battered by the force of the winds gusting through. The force of the sea swell outside of the harbour sent huge waves into the marina, flooding the jetties and lifting boats high in the water.
Head sails were unfurled and torn from their furlers, lazy lines were breaking, sending boats onto the jetties and others were heeling over towards the water. Everyone was up on deck in foul weather gear, battling to secure their lines and assisting the marinarers to attend to boats whose owners had gone home for the winter already, everyone desperately trying to protect their boats from the tirade of the weather.
We watched the wind speed climbing higher and higher and were in awe of the force of the hurricane we were witnessing, making the 35 knot gusts we experienced during our last month of sailing, seem like nothing in comparison. The highest recording we saw on our instruments was 58 knots, but we were told by another boat later, that they had recorded 60 knot gusts. Having considered that our recordings were from the inside of what we thought was a sheltered harbour, we were in awe of what it must have been like out in the open sea!
At around 3pm the wind suddenly died and the sky cleared, as if by magic.
The contrast was incredible, but there was still an air of unfinished business – we were in the ‘eye’ of the hurricane. We stood on deck and everyone looked around at each other, waiting for the next onslaught. It was an incredibly emotional moment, a realisation of the true force of nature and a feeling of being very insignificant.
Sure enough the sky darkened again and the wind began to climb, but this time without the same ferocity. By 4pm Medicane Zorba had moved on, leaving a trail of damage and destruction in its wake.
The sky began to clear and was a beautiful scene of distressed cloud and colour, it was time to begin clearing up.
By early evening we were in the supermarket stocking up ready for the next leg of our journey to Sicily, we now had a 3-day weather window in sight and were planning to leave the marina bright and early on Monday morning. We had one full day to prepare the boat for the long passage ahead and luckily the only damage we had sustained during the hurricane was a dented guardrail, we were good to go at last. The sunset after Zorba was one of the most amazing we had seen, it was a real reflection of what had been.
On 1 October we slipped our lines from Kalamata and ventured out into the open sea. We fully expected the sea state to be a little confused still, but were pleasantly surprised to find good sailing conditions available to us on our first day away from harbour in over a week. We calculated that our passage to Sicily would take us just over 3 days with the predicted wind and we would not see land nor have any telephone signal for at least 2 days of the journey.
We quickly settled ourselves into a familiar routine of watch keeping, enjoying the peacefulness of being back at sea and soaking up some sunshine. We had a few migrating visitors stop by and say hello, flight weary and obviously in need of a rest on their long journey south.
We watched the sun set and rise again after our first day, before the weather began to close in again, around midday of the second day at sea.
As the sky turned grey we realised that a pod of dolphins had joined us and were playing around the boat. There were too many to count and we were in awe of their joyful play, but very aware of the sudden change in the weather as the wind began to climb, gusting to 38 knots. Damian had been running the radar and we saw a ‘squall’ coming towards us. Suddenly the heavens opened up and we were pounded by rain as thunder crashed overhead and the sky lit up with bright streaks of lightening. Damian saw two ‘water spouts’ (mini tornadoes above the water) heading our way and we changed our course to try and move out of their path. We knew that if we were hit by either of the spouts we would be in trouble, so we desperately needed to get out of their way. Thankfully our escape was successful and the squall eventually subsided, leaving us a little stunned by the experience and praying that we would have a calmer onward journey.
Since we had left land behind and lost phone signal, we had been using a hand-held satellite tracking and data device to check in with our girls, my brother and Damian’s sister, sending ‘checking in – I’m okay’ texts twice per day to let them know we were safe. They were following our track and were keeping tabs on our whereabouts during the passage.
It is inconceivable how quickly we have gotten used to being so easily contactable via our mobile phones and this was a strange feeling of being ‘cut off from civilsation’, especially with no land in sight!
The rest of our passage passed without further challenge from the weather and as the Sicilian coastline came into view, we hoisted our Italian courtesy flag once again.
In the early morning sunshine on 4 October we finally caught sight of Marina Di Ragusa on the southern coast of Sicily, our home for the winter.
With just a few more nautical miles to go we were joined by another lively pod of dolphins, seemingly escorting us towards our final destination. It was a wonderful experience tinged with pure relief and the heavy weariness of a long passage.
As we drew nearer to the entrance of the marina, we called up the pilot on our VHF and were escorted to our berth. The marinarers assisted us in securing our lines, we lowered our gangway to the jetty and for the first time in 75 hours, we were able to go ashore. The last few weeks had been quite a ride and we were looking forward to putting our feet on terra firma for a while. Marina Di Ragus was to be our home for the next 6 months over winter and here we would be living amongst other liveaboard families, taking stock of our summer adventures and making plans for next year’s sailing season. Since leaving Croatia in May we had travelled almost 3000 nautical miles and the boat had taken a fair beating, it was time for a rest!
In my next BLOG I will give you a glimpse of our life in our liveaboard community and give an insight into our plans for next year.