Crotone (ITA) – Durrës (ALB)
“Could you turn it up a notch?” Ivar sighs. We are in Crotone, huddled in front of our new fan, which provides a bit of relief from the relentless Italian heat. “May as well plan our passage to the Adriatic Sea while we wait for wind!” Ivar grabs our pilot book and reads about this corner of the Mediterranean Sea. On its western shore is Italy, stretching for more than 400 nm from Italy’s heel towards Venice, our most northern destination. Balkan countries line its eastern shore. The average distance between the two coasts is around 100nm, and depths extend to more than 1,000 meters, so it’s a sea to reckon with. Our pilot book also warns of strong winds, such as the sirocco from the south and bora from the mountainous east. “And this time of year, winds are described as often coming from the north,” Ivar concludes. That happens to be the way we are headed as soon as we’ve rounded Italy’s heel…
The weather forecast confirms it: a northerly wind is expected for the next few days. We can use it to sail to Santa Maria di Leuca, a small town at the very heel of Italy and a long daytrip of 70 nm. Thereafter we’ll need to be patient and sail as soon and as long as the weather allows it. As the east coast of Italy has few ports and sheltered anchorages, our plan is to sail up the Balkan side. Albania, Montenegro and Croatia offer many opportunities for stops on our way to Venice. And who knows which sustainable initiatives we’ll discover in these unknown places?
Blown to Greece
We leave Crotone the next day and head towards Santa Maria di Leuca. From there, we could sail to Albania or Croatia. In theory it’s a sound plan, but in practice things turn out quite differently. Throughout the day the northerly breeze stays light, so we make very little progress. “Why not sail to Corfu?” Floris suggests. “We’ll be out at sea for most of the night anyway and we could sail into the Adriatic from there”. Ivar likes the idea of visiting Greece first. It also means we won’t have to tack our way to Santa Maria di Leuca, which is tiresome and time-consuming. Little do we suspect that the easier option will turn out to be the much rougher one.
In the evening, the wind picks up and big clouds form on the horizon. They grow high up into the sky above the coastline. When darkness falls, lightening lights up the clouds, followed by thunder. Will the thunderstorms stay above land? We realise that the surface seawater is a sizzling 30 degrees Celsius, which could further fuel the thunderstorms. Time to reef the mainsail and genua, just in case.
In the darkness we can only tell by the countless stars that the sky above us remains clear. Lightning strikes in the distance on our port side, meaning that the thunderstorms stay above land. Yet later that night high-altitude clouds pass by and it doesn’t take long before the wind shifts and significantly increases. Within moments we’re on a close-to-the-wind course to Corfu with winds well above 30 knots. Luci lists to one side, while the waves gather strength and form breaking white rollers. “Hold tight, here comes another one” warns Ivar. Seconds later a loud bang resonates through the hull, followed by enormous amounts of water flushing over the deck and the cockpit. It goes on all night. Neither of us really sleeps, while Luci stubbornly bounces and splashes through the ever-rougher seas.
Closing in on Corfu
In the first daylight we spot Corfu’s green mountains on the horizon. As we get closer small islands provide some lee and the waves finally reduce in height. We steer into the bay of Afiona on the west side of the island. Shelter at last! We drop our anchor on a sandy patch and relax when it holds in one try. Floris takes out our bag with courtesy flags in search of the Greek one. When he’s ready to hoist it, he notices that our Italian courtesy flag didn’t survive the night. Clearly it was time for us to leave Italy after almost four months.
“Let’s first get some rest!” Exhausted, we catch up on some sleep. Only hours later we take in the beauty of our bay over a late breakfast. The steep, green mountains and large sandy beach make for a warm welcome. We realise that we underestimated the developing thunderstorms in combination with the tunnel effect of the Otranto Straight. This 39-mile narrow entrance to the Adriatic Sea, just to the north of Corfu, is mountainous on both sides. As a result, winds passing through the straight are significantly accelerated. On a positive note, our confidence in Luci has further increased. She did very well in these rough circumstances, the roughest we have had so far. While we rinse Luci’s deck and cockpit with fresh water and clean up the mess inside, we soon forget what a struggle it was to get here. Time to discover the island!
Solar All the Wa(y)ve
We don’t have to go far to find something special. The neighbouring boat SolarWave is a catamaran without mast, its roof covered with solar panels. The crew wave at us to come and meet them. Falk, Suzanne and Andrea even invite us for sun downers and dinner. What a warm welcome and great opportunity to learn more about their extraordinary boat!
Falk, the project director and technician, explains the on-board systems to us with great detail. The engines, kitchen tools, every piece of equipment is 100% powered with solar energy! He and trainee Andrea use the SolarWave as research station to learn everything about solar energy. Falk also proves to be a very skilled drone pilot and makes stunning images of our bay and Lucipara. Meanwhile, Susanne prepares cocktails and a delicious dinner. We are overwhelmed by their generosity. As they say in German, wirklich irre!
Luxurious Emission-Free Cruising
Soon we experience why the SolarWave crew chose the Ionian Sea as their preferred testing and cruising area. There is lots of sun and very little wind. As we can’t sail, Falk invites us to go on an excursion with the SolarWave. We happily accept his invitation and leave Luci alone at the anchorage. While we silently cruise with 5 knots, it feels a bit odd that we don’t have to steer and navigate ourselves. And the luxury doesn’t end there. We bake bread, make water and even do our laundry, all on solar energy. At the anchorage in Petriti we try out a paddle board with an electric propeller and visit a bar/hotel set in a replica Garden of Eden. The place puts us under its spell. We forget the time and only leave at dawn. No problem for the SolarWave: the batteries take over and we sail effortlessly through the darkness. We love the silence, the pace and the lack of emissions. The future of motor boating has definitely arrived!
Kerkyra with Friends
Our friend Saskia has come to Corfu to spend a few days with us. After we pick her up SfS-style – by kayak – we spend all evening catching up. It’s great to see her again after more than a year. Together with the SolarWave crew we explore Corfu’s capital Kerkyra. Falk and Susanne know the best spots and take us on a tour. By dinghy we cruise through a shallow canal along the old fort. Venetian lions along the route are a testament to Corfu’s past as a strategic naval base for the Venetian Republic. In the historic centre, well-preserved buildings and churches give the town a historic yet peaceful ambiance.
Falk also knows where to find a good chandlery. We buy courtesy flags for the Balkan countries and Saskia gifts us the Adriatic Sea pilot. That’ll come in very handy for the next leg of our trip. Then it’s time for Floris to visit the officials. While the others explore the local food market, he goes on a solo mission to obtain the DEKPA, the cruising permit for Greek waters. Although sailors don’t seem to get checked, we don’t want to risk a fine for not having this document. Two hours, two government institutions and five civil servants later, Floris comes back with a big smile on his face and the DEKPA. The bureaucratic ordeal he went through was quite amusing and can be read in full on noonsite.
The wind seems to have taken a summer break, so we explore the island on foot. We discover spectacular hiking routes and follow them into small, picturesque villages. Just as we think we have them to ourselves, we turn a corner to find coaches letting people loose in the narrow streets. We quickly find a walking path that we have to ourselves. From afar we smell fig trees along the way and pick fresh figs until we can’t carry any more. In one village we even get help from an old lady, whose walking stick also serves as a tool to pick high-hanging fruit. We haven’t even learned to say Thank You in Greek, but sometimes words are not needed to understand each other.
On one of our waiting-for-wind days, we reunite with Karin and Jeroen from s/y White Pearl. They left the Netherlands shortly before we did and we managed to catch up with them five months ago in Ibiza. We then went our separate ways to discover the Mediterranean. It is such a large and diverse cruising area that meeting each other again is quite exceptional and a cause for celebration. This time they are accompanied by their son Tom and his girlfriend Willianne. Over drinks and dinner on board, we exchange stories about our adventures, plans and misfortunes. They recently hit an underwater rock and need to go to a shipyard for repairs. Fortunately, they are well insured and have already accepted the situation. It reminds us how quickly circumstances can change and plans need to be adjusted.
A Warm Welcome in Albania
When some wind finally comes, we decide to coast-hop further north via Albania. This means we have to prepare, as entry formalities apply. Our new pilot book explains that yachting facilities in Albania are virtually non-existent, and visiting yachts are treated similarly to commercial vessels. The corresponding administrative conundrum can be solved by hiring a local agent. Via noonsite we find agent Jelja Serani in Sarandë, Albania’s most Southern port. It is only a short sail from Corfu, so a good place for us to enter the country. Jelja proves to be very responsive both via email and phone and her English is excellent. When we call the Sarandë port authorities by VHF, she takes over the conversation and guides us to a berth in the harbour. There is a large quay where we can moor stern-to, with our anchor out in front, next to the ferry. After we are securely moored, she takes our boat papers and passports, and returns an hour later with the required paperwork and stamps. She also explains the highlights of this town and surroundings to us. Excited to set foot in this new land, we go on exploration.
Modern and Ancient Discoveries
Sarandë proves to be an intriguing place. Its long beach, many bars and restaurants make for a popular holiday destination among Albanians. We see new high-end developments targeted at foreign tourists, next to small shops set up by street vendors. Expensive cars pass by shabby, empty houses and stop in front of brand new buildings. Archaeological sites are scattered all over town with a few explanations about their Roman history. To add to the eclectic mix, we come across small bunkers in the middle of the pedestrian street. They can be found in the entire country and are remnants of Albania’s troubled history.
To get a better picture of Albania’s history we take a bus to Butrint. This UNESCO world heritage site must be an archaeologist’s wet dream. Well-preserved Greek, Roman, Byzantine and Venetian theatres, temples, churches are found next to each other. No modern city was built on top of the ruins, so the site is one big open air park. For some reason, people lost interest in this place in the 17th century. It wasn’t until Italian archaeologists started to examine the site in the 1930s that the remains and unique history of this place became uncovered. The many artist impressions along the walking way show how the city must have looked throughout history. Some buildings are remarkably intact, thanks to their firm foundations and skilfully stapled blocks. We wonder if our present-day buildings will also last this long…
The northern wind won’t abate, and we look at stopover options for sailing further upwind into the Adriatic Sea. The Dutch ambassador to Albania is an acquaintance of Floris and we contact the embassy to learn more about sustainability initiatives in the country. They quickly reply and we arrange an appointment with the Dutch ambassador in Tirana. The closest port is Durrës, 100nm from Sarandë. Soon after leaving we pass through the notorious Otranto Straight in calm weather, and make some good progress after that. Yet it was too good to be true. Just as we start thinking of where to hove-to in order to arrive by daylight, the wind completely dies down. We literally just float, only moved by a weak current. It lasts another day and night, so we only arrive after 48 hours.
As we approach Durrës, Ivar takes a closer look at the red lines and symbols on our map. “Zoom in for more info” it says. Mines!? The symbols cover the whole map, except for a narrow corridor towards the port. A tanker is indeed using it, as we can see on our AIS screen. Our pilot book reassures us that the mines dating back to the Cold War years have all been cleared. Still, it’s not something you see on a map every day. Should we use the corridor, although that means a long detour? Local fishing boats help us make up our minds. They fish in the former minefield. All clear!
Docked in Durrës
Without any problems we make our way through the former minefield. Inside the commercial port a pilot boat directs us to an empty spot on the quay between a bulk carrier and a towboat, right underneath a gigantic crane. Somebody waves in the distance. It’s our agent Ilir Gjergji, who takes our lines and welcomes us. Over coffee, he brings us up to speed about the harbour and the city. Ilir has arranged a spot for three consecutive days, which allows us to leave Luci alone and travel to Tirana. He arranges our papers in no-time, after which we are free to explore the harbour and the city.
As we walk towards the exit, we notice that the commercial harbour is enormous. Several container carriers, bulk carriers and ferries are moored at its quays. There are no yacht facilities at all and we feel very small here. Still, we can stroll around freely between operating cranes and moving containers. Security is strict, people walk with helmets on and we see many guards. The staff at the main entrance take their jobs quite seriously. They soon recognize us as “yachties”, and courteously let us in and out.
At the beach the scene is more laid back. There is a pier with bars, restaurants, and a swimming pool, which we use as an alternative to the non-existent shower facilities at the harbour. We turn out to be the only visitors and have the entire pool for ourselves; we bathe in luxury. The centre is much more lively. Terraces, restaurants, and stores are full of people enjoying the weekend. We treat ourselves to ice cream – 30 cents a scoop! – and buy some bread and typical Albanian pastry at a bakery. On our way back to Luci, we pass more Roman “old stones”, as we frivolously call them sometimes, such as an amphitheatre and remains of the city wall. Durrës’s diversity makes it another fascinating Albanian town!
Tirana’s Past and Present
From Durrës it’s a short drive in our rental car to Albania’s capital Tirana. 14 years ago Floris studied in Venice with Suela, who is Albanian and lives in Tirana. We meet up with her and her colleague Laura. To welcome us to their country they treat us to a delicious lunch. Such a generous gesture! We catch up and they answer our burning questions about Albania’s past and current. Laura encourages us to visit the museum “BunkArt2”. In this former government bunker in downtown Tirana we learn more about the communist era after the Second World War, the lack of freedom and state terror which deeply traumatized the country. Many thousands of Albanians were tortured and killed in prisons and concentration camps. Under dictatorial rule, the country became extremely isolationist, breaking ties even with the Soviet Union. Citizens were made to spy on each other and feed the secret police with information. Anyone who criticized the regime could be arrested and put away. Bizarre amounts of labour and resources ended up in hundreds of thousands of bunkers and other defence systems. Personal freedom was severely suppressed. We are shocked to learn about this, and realise how little we knew about it.
Sustainability in Albania
Our question to the embassy of the Netherlands was straightforward. Within a day, they not only sent us a list of projects and contacts, but also asked their Facebook followers to send us tips. Over the course of two days we manage to study some of them. In Tirana a bike-sharing scheme seems to be quite popular, and we hear that safe cycling infrastructure is being developed. We also meet Jona and Stela from Pitupi. This young company produces children’s clothing in an environmentally and socially sustainable way. The fabrics are all organic and the seamstresses are provided with good working conditions. True to their name – Pitupi is short for People to People – they even include a personal message inside, so customers can see who made it. At the end of a day full of discoveries, we dine at Mullixhiu, a Slow Food restaurant at the edge of Tirana’s central park. While we enjoy local, seasonal and honest dishes, we are happy that the slow food movement has also made inroads in Albania.
The Dutch ambassador also invites us to the opening of new tourist facilities at Pellumbas. An hour’s drive away from Tirana, a hiking trail crosses the spectacular Albanian mountainous forests and leads to a large natural cave. In an effort to promote hiking as sustainable tourism, a new road, visitor center and lodging facilities have been built. The local villagers are thrilled about all the attention that the opening ceremony attracts. The minister of Urban Planning, the mayor of Tirana, our ambassador and representatives from USAID and the Swedish embassy make it a very high profile event. Our ambassador speaks our mind when she expresses her hope that Albania that development of tourism can combine economic benefits for local people with nature conservation.
After almost three weeks, the northerly winds finally abate. With a fair easterly wind forecast, we leave Durrës behind us and set sail for Croatia. Coast hopping our way towards the Adriatic Sea proved to be full of positive surprises. Corfu brought unexpected reunions with friends and a place to make new friends, while Albania revealed its beauty, friendliness and sustainability initiatives to us. The country’s past was surely troubled, but it is now quickly developing into a very welcoming place. We would have liked to see more, but we want to make use of this weather window. And look forward to an Adriatic experience that Albania can’t offer: islands and sheltered anchorages.