Isola di San Pietro (ITA) – Crotone (ITA)
“How on earth are we going to make it through the peak summer season?” Ivar thinks out loud. “I have a nightmare vision of countless boats overcrowding expensive marinas, very few suitable anchorages, no wind to sail and bloody hot weather”. “No worries,” Floris replies, “we’ll manage. Everything will be fine.” But will it?
Our time in the Mediterranean Sea so far has been splendid. During winter the weather was mostly good, yet we were sometimes the only sailing boat out at sea. The marinas along our way were never full and often offered low season discounts, making them quite affordable. When spring arrived, it felt like summer to us. With temperatures around 20 degrees, we started swimming on a quiet Ibiza in March and explored the still-not-very-busy French Cote d’Azur in April. Along the Italian Ligurian coast, on Elba, Corsica and Sardinia we found beautiful anchorages, which were never crowded even in May and June. But that was all before the notoriously busy summer holiday season began.
Swimming Pants Crossing
As we head towards Sicily, the temperatures increase. “I can’t believe it. Here we are out at sea in the late evening, and we’re both still in our swimming pants!” Floris smiles. The air temperature is around 25 degrees, so neither of us feels chilly. Until today we always had to dress warm for a night at sea. “I can get used to this” Ivar grins.
As night falls, we leave the lee of Sardinia’s mountains. Luci stops bouncing all over the place as wind and waves finally come from the same direction. A firm and stable NW wind pushes us towards Sicily, a crossing of around 200 nautical miles. This weather window is too good to miss, although we would have loved to make a stopover in Cagliari, Sardinia’s capital city in the south of the island. Hopefully, we’ll get there on our way back later in the year.
Plenty of spacious anchorages
In the middle of our second night, our anchor drops at Isola di Marittimo. After more than 40 hours of sailing, we’ve reached the westernmost Egadian island, just off the coast of Sicily. We catch some sleep and explore the island the next day. There are only a few yachts visiting, how very surprising. The village of Marittimo turns out to be charming, made up of white and blue coloured houses. In combination with the deep blue sea, it’s a spectacular view from the hiking trail against a steep, green mountain background. Arancine, the typical Sicilian fried rice balls, make for a delicious lunch. And of course we have “artiginale” – homemade – ice-cream as desert. What a warm welcome!
Also on neighbouring Isola di Favignana, we find a well-sheltered anchorage with plenty of space. As we go for a hike and walk around Favignana’s harbour, we come across a beach with hundreds of rusty anchors. They turn out to be the remnants of a once thriving tuna industry. Paintings show enormous nets that stretched far into the sea straight towards Sicily. The anchors held these nets in place. Due to overfishing, the tuna fishing and canning industry completely collapsed and disappeared decades ago. Nowadays the abandoned factories look eerie. What a tragic reminder of the human ability to mindlessly overshoot nature’s limits. Hopefully these beautiful animals are now able to recover, since the inhabitants of the island have completely switched to tourism as their source of income.
Who Wants to Be in a Marina?
We stay a few days on Isola di Favignana to await good wind. When it arrives we sail past an impressively steep, mountainous coast to San Vito lo Capo on northwest Sicily. There are many boats at the anchorage but it is large enough for us to fit in as well. The lengthy beach is packed with tourists and when we kayak to shore for a hike we understand why: the white sand and the crystal clear, shallow water make it a well-liked holiday destination. The marina is also popular, it looks rather full and is quite expensive.
After a tour of the town we go for a hike, in the soaring heat. We empty 4 litres of water while hiking up Monte Monaco, but the stunning view of Luci in the bay is well worth the effort. Once in town again the “gelato artiginale” tastes even better. And thanks to our fatigue, the disco music from the beach club hardly keeps us awake that night.
The next day is even warmer with temperatures of more than 30 degrees in the shade. There is basically no wind, so we create some with our mini-fans. To stay cool, we spend most of the day swimming and snorkelling. When a light breeze picks up, we move the anchor line to the stern. With Luci turned backwards on the anchor, we get some more fresh air in the cockpit. We wonder who would want to be in a marina with this type of weather? Feeling a bit sorry for the boats there, we jump into the sea once more to cool down.
A day of westerly wind takes us further east. The sky above Sicily looks grey, as if there are clouds. When we look closer we see that it’s smoke. The source is wildfires, which are thriving under these hot, dry and windy conditions. Our anchor drops near Mondello, a popular beach town not far from Palermo. Not far from here, there is another wildfire burning. Two firefighting planes continuously fly from our bay to the fires, filling up their bellies with seawater right next to us. They come so close that we wonder if we’re in their way, but the bay is large enough for us to stay where we are and witness the spectacle.
Since we’re so close to Palermo, Sicily’s capital, we decide to take a bus and go there. We’re impressed by the many cultures that left their marks on this city during time. Especially the arab-norman culture left some unique monuments, which are well-preserved. The highlight is a beautifully decorated chapel inside the former royal palace. The golden mosaics take our breath away. A testament to the beauty that (wo)men can create. If mankind can do that, we can also change the world for the better.
Mediterranean Weather Window
We’re surprised to see that for many sailboats around us a “weather window” seems to be the exact opposite of what we consider to be good sailing circumstances. When there is a complete lack of wind, most other sailboats motor away on a quiet sea. And when a NW 5/6 force wind arrives, we’re the only sailboat at sea to make use of this brilliant day to sail the 80 nautical miles to Isola di Vulcano, the most southern of the Eolian Islands…
As the summer progresses, it reveals a pattern. A few days of reasonably strong winds are typically followed by many days without wind. We soon name the motoring habit on a quiet sea the “Mediterranean weather window”. Due to this phenomenon, our planning will also be more difficult. As we are about to experience.
Lucifer and Vulcano
Just as we’ve reached the first volcanic island, a period of extremely hot weather has started. Soon it will get its own name: “Lucifer”. Mainland Italy and ten other countries in the Mediterranean suffer from this historic heat wave. Even more hot and dry weather is surely bad news for nature and public health. Is this the new normal? The climate models seem to think so, and unfortunately predict the future might be a lot worse when the root causes of climate change remain unchecked.
Luckily for us, on the water the temperatures are manageable. A light breeze and an occasional swim keep us cool, although the water surface temperature has reached 30 degrees. Undisturbed, we hike to Isola di Vulcano’s main crater at 400 metres above sea. The hiking trail is relatively easy and continues around the crater. Although it hasn’t erupted since the 1890-ies, it surely is still active. Sulphuric gases escape and yellow rock forms around cracks in the rocky soil. It smells of rotten-eggs and we feel the heat from the gases when we pass by. As we eat our lunch at the summit, we also get a magnificent view on the bay with its crowded anchorage and black sandy beach!
When the small anchorage of Isola di Vulcano becomes bizarrely busy and we have enough of the rotten-egg smell, we move to the nearby island of Isola di Lipari. Its eponymous main town turns out to be charming, with a historic fort that sits on an impressively steep rock. We find a spot to anchor at a depth of 15 meter and are surprised to clearly see our anchor on the bottom. In the almanac we read that the clearness of the water is actually caused by a lack of nutrients. Because there are hardly any tides (average 20 cm) and currents, there are virtually no algae and plankton. That explains why we haven’t seen any mussels and other shells in the Mediterranean Sea. We’re looking at the land-equivalent of prairie landscape!
Luckily, as we find out during a snorkelling expedition on neighbouring Isola di Panarea, other marine life forms are faring much better. So many colourful fish surround us that it seems like we’re in an aquarium. On the many underwater rocks and steep cliffs, various seaweeds and corals have adapted here. Together they make a stunning underwater scenery.
Many other boats have already used their “Mediterranean weather windows” when our patience for wind is finally rewarded a few days later. Slowly we reach Isola di Stromboli by genaker. As a volcano Stromboli is unique because it constantly erupts lava and gases -contrary to most volcanos that build up pressure to violently and infrequently explode. The shape of the island is a typical volcano-like cone that descends steeply into the sea. This makes finding a suitable anchor depth challenging. As we approach the only shallow plateau around the island, we notice we’re not the only boat to have picked this spot. The anchorage is crowded, mainly with charter boats, but we manage to find some room for Luci.
We explore the town and do some grocery shopping. To celebrate Ivar’s birthday, we pick a pizzeria with a view on the anchorage. It has become more windy, perfect in this heat. Just as our pizzas arrive, Floris freezes. “We have to leave! Luci is drifting away from the anchorage towards the deep sea!” We rush down to the beach, while carrying heavy groceries in our backpacks. We jump into our kayak and paddle to Luci as fast as we can. As we get closer, we see two guys on board. They used their RIB to get to Luci and calm us down when we arrive, exhausted. “It’s better not to anchor so close to the ridge, the volcanic sand on the bottom is quite loose. It happens quite a lot that boats drift away from here” they tell us when we regain our breath. We thank them for their help and feel like complete idiots. Especially when, in search of a better anchoring spot closer to the shore, we pass the many charter boats that are all firmly anchored. After we find one and properly test the holding of the anchor with our engine, we realize how lucky we’ve been. What if we had not seen Luci from the pizzeria? Or had been on the night hike up the volcano? Luci almost started her own trip without us… We slowly relax over some canned soup. What a birthday!
As if Luci’s solo excursion never happened, the next evening we join a guided group hike to the top of the volcano. Stromboli’s crater towers almost one kilometre above sea level. Thanks to the evening breeze and the many stops the guide makes, it’s relatively easy going. For most of the way we have a view on Luci, who remains peacefully in one spot.
It’s already dark when we reach the summit three hours later. Just when we hold still and sit down to admire the view, a loud roar followed by a fountain of fire and molten rocks mesmerises us. The first eruption completely surprises us, but the next eruptions are just as awesome. We just can’t get enough of the view. After a full hour on top, we are the last group to descent. Relieved, we find the kayak and Luci patiently waiting for us when we get back down around 1am.
Through the Straight
From Stromboli’s summit, we could see the Messina Straight, the narrow passage between the Italian mainland and Sicily. We have made an appointment to visit our next sustainable solution in Calabria, so plan to pass the Straight, sail to Crotone and pick up a rental car there. Yet for three days in a row, there isn’t a breath of wind. The sea state is very smooth, which makes anchoring near Stromboli a delight. But the lack of wind also means we make no progress, and we get a bit nervous about our appointment. When a bit of wind arrives, we set sail and manage to make a few knots with our genaker. We reach Scilla, at the north end of the Straight, in the late evening. This ancient town looks interesting from our anchorage, but what it looks like on shore remains a mystery to us. The next morning we leave early to benefit from the 3-4 knots current. Together with the strong tailwind they pushes us through the Messina Straight in no-time. We can see how bad conditions here can get in bad weather and understand the notorious reputation the Straight had among ancient seafarers. Although they didn’t have to worry about the busy ferry traffic back then…
As we leave the Straight behind us, the wind abruptly vanishes. We decide to anchor off the beach at Bova Marina. There is no protection against the sea here, but under these calm conditions we can anchor anywhere. The next two days there is still no wind, not even a sea breeze. This type of wind typically picks up in the afternoon when the land gets warmer than the water. Perhaps the absence of a sea breeze is due do the sea surface temperature that has reached a stunning 31 degrees? To reach Crotone in time we have no other choice but to make use of a “Mediterranean weather window” after all. With more engine hours than we would have liked we reach Crotone just in time to pick up our rental car. It reminds us how relaxed it is to not have a tight schedule and be able to await good winds.
The next day we leave early and drive for two hours through Calabria. To avoid the heat later in the day, we have a morning appointment. The soil and forests around us look very dry and we see smoke from wildfires in the distance. We wonder how the tree seedlings that we plan to visit are coping with these hot weather conditions.
Our destination is a reforestation project. The newly planted trees restore the local ecosystem by feeding the soil, storing water and providing shelter to other life forms. And as they grow and store CO2 in their wood, they also combat climate disruption. It is part of the EU Greenlink project, and makes use of the COCOON. This product by Amsterdam-based Land Life Company, is a doughnut-shaped box that is placed around the tree seedling. It waters, protects and feeds the young trees and claims to increases their first-year survival rate from a meagre 10% to a stunning 80-90%.
That sounds all very promising, but we’re eager to see the reforestation in practice. We meet Antonella Totaro, Land Life Company’s Italian country coordinator, and Antonio Fiore, the landowner. They show us around the land, which was a former caulk mining site and looks extremely barren. Yet the 2,400 fig, olive and pomegranate trees that were planted look remarkably green and healthy. They are between 6 and 12 months old and Antonella explains to us that the learning’s from this and other projects are being used to further improve the product. To us it seems the COCOON surely lives up to the expectations, even during the hottest heat wave in living memory. We will explain more details on this remarkable reforestation innovation in a separate ecosystems solution item.
When we see Crotone disappear in the distance, we look back on last month. Ivar’s upfront worries about sailing the peak summer season in the Italian waters were based on stories from other sailors and our pilot book. And although some issues are surely part of reality, Floris was definitely right in expecting all to be fine.
There seems to be a positive correlation between marina occupancy rates and prices on one hand, and higher air and water temperatures on the other. This seems trivial, but has an important benefit. When the air and water temperatures increase, and the weather in general is more stable, staying at an anchorage becomes the preferred option. There is the benefit of a refreshing wind that easily cools the peak heat in the afternoon. Who wants to pay for a hot marina when you can swim in 28 degrees water all day long and use a fresh water deck shower to rinse off? In fact, we haven’t stayed a single night in a marina since the end of April. Instead we enjoyed the freedom and beauty at countless anchorages, saving lots of mooring fees in the process. The calmer the weather, the more anchorages become available. We’ve only encountered a few busy anchorages, but most were not very crowded at all. Thanks to our pilot , noonsite and the Navily app we could identify suitable places for us to anchor. When we experienced stronger winds, we used them to sail longer distances. But we also found anchorages that provided proper shelter for all winds.
Another positive correlation we’ve encountered is the one between sun hours and intensity on one hand, and our energy needs on the other. When our solar panels are charging for 12 hours a day, they generate more than enough energy to power all our systems. This includes our water maker, computers and fans. This allows us to be self-sufficient at the anchorage and effectively eliminates the need for shore power and shore water.
So, long live our anchor! We believe that without our 40kg Rocna we wouldn’t have fared so well through the hot Italian summer. Although we have also learned that even a good anchor is not always a guarantee to stay in place, as we experienced on Stromboli. Not only did we survive the peak summer season in Italian waters, we also learned an important lesson on the anchoring front. Off to Greece!