We sail from Nice to Le Grazie. Very slowly. We visit the Slow Food movement, and enjoy the beauty of Italy’s Ligurian coast. And we surely prefer water to be outside of the boat…
Nice (FRA)– Le Grazie (ITA)
“I’m sorry, but you really have to leave by noon. A superyacht has reserved your berth”. The harbourmaster is friendly but strict. The marina in Nice is fully booked, so we have to hurry. We drive our friends Evelyn and Fred to the airport, return the rental car and buy some groceries. We manage to be back on the boat just in time to leave Nice exactly at noon. But where to? There is no wind at all.
We don’t have to go far. The bay east of Nice offers good shelter, so we anchor there, close to Villefranche-sur-Mer. While we wait for fair winds to sail to Italy, Floris researches potential stopovers. He discovers that the marinas in the region consider May 1st the start of the high season and charge correspondingly high prices. The first sheltered anchorage along the Italian coast is more than 100 nm away: a bay near Portofino.
Patience and Damage Control
The calm weather lasts a few days and gives us time to have lunch with Floris’s brother-in-law Bruno and nephews Luc and Julian. Soon afterwards we lift the anchor. The forecast promises favourable winds, so we should be able to sail to Italy in an overnight trip. A gentle breeze fills our sails and it doesn’t take long before we pass Monaco. Yet just as we’re getting settled for a steady crossing, the wind all but abandons us. Our patience is tested for hours and hours during which we move very slowly. At night the wind dies down altogether, while the waves increase. The combination of waves without wind is very bad for our sails. They smack against the rigging and wear out. To prevent damage we have no choice but to start the engine. We don’t like it, but it’s better than a torn sail. With the mainsail tightly fixed and the engine running steadily, we at least make some progress.
What’s Floating There?
Relief comes with the first daylight. The wind returns and we can sail again. The monotone humming of the engine is replaced by blissful sounds of the wind and waves. We keep an eye open for dolphins, but are treated to quite a different phenomenon. Thousands upon thousands of transparent, oval-shaped objects, about the size of bottle caps float around the boat. Is it plastic litter? Sadly, we have seen various forms and shapes of it, wherever we sailed. Yet this is different. There are so many of them, they form kilometre-long carpets. In true Darwin style Ivar catches some for further examination. They are soft like jellyfish and from their base, a blue oval disc, a transparent triangle rises up vertically. It makes them look like little sailing boats, quite spectacular. We continue to see them everywhere on the water surface and are determined to learn more about this intriguing natural phenomenon.
Portofino at Last
Before midday the wind decreases again and we go back to snail speed. The VHF keeps us entertained. The Italian Coast Guard is on it, non-stop. Not because of an on-going search and rescue operation, but because it seems to call all ships in the area. Sure enough, soon it’s our turn! The station calls us on VHF channel 16 and we respond. Just a radio check. Okay, bye. An hour later, we’re called again. Another radio check! Wow, these guys take their traffic-monitoring role quite seriously.
Slowly but surely we are closing in on Portofino. As evening falls, the town’s lighthouse is lit just when we pass it. We head for the bay of Paraggi around the corner and find ourselves the only boat at the anchorage. In the last daylight we throw out the anchor and are happy to have made it, even if it took longer than expected.
The next morning it’s time to discover Portofino. The footpath meanders through the forest along the coast, providing stunning views of our bay, the sea and Portofino’s colourful historic buildings. Built around a natural harbour and surrounded by steep cliffs, it makes for a picturesque and charming place. Despite the large number of tourists it attracts, we enjoy our first Italian destination, with a gelato, of course.
The next morning during our breakfast in the sun, a coast guard boat approaches us. They explain – in fluent Italian – that we are inside the protective area, as marked by a yellow buoy. To us the anchoring demarcation wasn’t very clear, but the coast guard leaves no room for misinterpretation. They ask us to leave “adesso” (now), in a friendly but firm tone, and wait for us to pull up the anchor. We are allowed to anchor beyond the yellow buoy, but that’s outside the protection of the bay and 18 meters deep. We decide to move to the nearby town of Santa Margherita Ligure instead.
With a depression heading our way, the sunny and calm weather temporarily comes to an end. The forecast predicts lots of rain and 25 knots of wind from SE. That’s the only direction from which this coast does not provide shelter. We head for the harbour, also because Ivar’s brother Kristiaan and his family are visiting. They drove all the way from the Netherlands to see us.
Only a few hours after we are safely moored, they arrive. What a pleasure to be reunited! We spend the next days with them exploring the charming town and enjoying the delicacies it offers. We have a lovely time with them, undeterred by the weather, which is more Dutch than Italian and causes the swell to rock the boat even in the harbour.
Too Much Water
A day after Ivar’s family heads back north, the weather improves and the swell abates. To save costs we plan to move to the anchorage next to the harbour. Before we leave the marina, we fill up our fresh water tank. That takes quite some time; we didn’t realize that it was so empty. We start the engine, leave our berth and head towards the anchorage. Just as we’re finalizing our anchoring manoeuvres, an engine alarm sounds. Ivar checks the instrument panel and sees a red light indicating a temperature problem. Probably overheating, perhaps a lack of coolant? But the engine temperature is very low, off the scale low actually. Very strange, we’ve never seen this before. Ivar stops the engine, takes off the bonnets and looks at… water. Lots of water! The entire bilge is full of this fluid that surely belongs outside of the boat!
We immediately switch on the electric bilge pump, and start investigating. There’s lots of water in the front bilge too, the level is just below the cabin floor. How did all this water come in? Think fast. Could it be a leak in the fresh water system? Floris dips his finger and tastes the water. It’s salty, so no doubt about its origin. But where’s the leak? Could it be the toilet? The sink? The engine? The propeller or rudder shaft? Or even a hole in our hull? Floris starts to operate our manual bilge pump, but we are unsure if our pumps are keeping up with the water intake and start to get really worried. We call the Santa Margherita Ligure Coast Guard on the VHF for help and explain our situation. They reply immediately and promise assistance.
In the meantime Floris keeps on pumping, while the electrical bilge pump continues to operate. Ivar desperately tries to find the leak. He closes the water inlets, including the toilet and the engine cooling water. There is no water coming from the rudder shaft. The seal of the propeller shaft is under water, so there’s no way to determine if that leaks. There is no water leaking from the exhaust hose. The uncertainty is nerve wrecking. What if the water keeps on flowing in? We could sink here! No, don’t think that. We just need to fix this. Another inspection round. No trace of water leaking anywhere. That’s good news. But are we making any progress getting the water out of the boat? Ivar then notices that the engine mounts are fully above the water again. Oooof, the water level is going down. We start to feel that we can manage this.
After around 15 minutes the coast guard boat arrives, followed by the marina harbour boat. They hand us a big hose and switch on their pump. That helps! In no time all the water is out. Wow, that’s a big relief! But we still haven’t found the leak. Together with the harbourmaster, who’s also a mechanic, we open the cooling water inlet and start the engine. Water is gushing in. The source seems to be the engine cooling water pump. Upon further inspection we find a leak where the hose connects to the pump. A hose clamp is broken. Relieved that we found the leak, we replace the broken hose clamp and start the engine again. Not a drop of water is leaking now. This still leaves the question why the automatic bilge pump didn’t work. We check it and find a broken wire.
As our adrenaline levels decrease, we clean and dry Luci’s engine room and bilge. Slowly the full reality of our stupidity sinks in. How could we have missed the weak hose clamp and did not check the bilge pump switch regularly? We surely need to add this to our engine inspection routine. We also realise how lucky we were. All systems still work, the total damage is limited to one broken hose clamp. When we ask about assistance costs, the guys from the coast guard and marina reply with “Oh, this is just part of our work”. We realise that this could have ended much worse and bring our rescuers thank-you cakes the next morning.
Just in case you were wondering, we sailed to Liguria in northern Italy because of the “Slow Food” movement. Back in Barcelona, we visited restaurant “Somorrostro”, a great place that serves local and organic food and wines. It’s connected to Slow Food, a global organization headquartered in Italy.
While “Fast Food” is characterized by large-scale, industrialized and standardized food processing, Slow Food aims to achieve the exact opposite. It demands natural means to grow crops, so working conditions are healthy and the environment is protected. And it promotes local, artisanal and diverse food, which is prepared with knowledge and embedded in the local culture. In other words, they promote “Ecogastronomy”.
Carlo Petrini founded the Slow Food movement in 1986 in Bra, so that’s where we’re going. We get a rental car and first visit the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo. Alessandra Abbona welcomes us and explains the history of the University and its close connection to the Slow Food movement. Various courses address the historical, cultural and sustainability aspects of food. With thousands of international graduates, it’s surely spreading the knowledge of a more sustainable food system around the world. In the neighbouring town of Bra we visit the Slow Food International office and are welcomed by Ester Clementino. She explains the activities of the central organization that coordinates many events, markets and connects people between the more than 130 countries that have a national Slow Food branch. We end our excursion with a short visit to Boccondivino, the restaurant where the movement began.
When we return, Luci patiently awaits us behind the anchor in Santa Margherita Ligure. Back on board we reflect on what we’ve learned from Slow Food today. The food is produced organically, so with respect for nature. It’s local, meaning from less than 100km away, which saves transportation costs and energy. Fair prices provide employment to the, mostly small, producers. And the production methods improve biodiversity. It is truly a sustainable nutrition solution, to which we devote a separate article and video here.
We’re ready to move on, but there is not a breath of wind. And the weather forecast indicates that it will stay that way for at least five days. We would like to sail further south, but just have to be patient. Fortunately, the Portofino national park is beautiful and we make quite a few spectacular hikes. Well-marked trails lead through spring-green forests, every now and than contrasted by the deep blue Mediterranean Sea in the background. Picturesque, colourful villages with freshly baked delicious focaccias and authentic gelatos add to the pleasure.
One evening, Alessandra visits us on-board for drinks. We met her close to Portofino when we left our kayak next to the outdoor sports and education centre where she works, “Outdoor Portofino”. Their aim is to educate as many people as possible about the beauty and vulnerability of marine life. They do so by organizing hiking, kayaking, snorkelling and sailing expeditions. We can relate to such a great purpose. She also knows more about the millions of small, jellyfish-like sailing creatures that we encountered on our way here. They’re a special type of jellyfish: Velella velella, known commonly as “By-the-wind Sailors”. They are typical for this time of the year and are not only a food source for marine life, but also fertilize the shores they wash onto. Alessandra is also very enthusiastic about our journey and offers her help in spreading our story in Italy, an offer we gratefully accept. Such a pleasure to meet you!
Another day we jump on a train to Genua. The grand statue of Columbus, who was born her, welcomes us outside the train station. The city is full of historic palaces and churches, which attest to Genua’s history as maritime power. The medieval centre is also remarkably well maintained and is home to at least one great organic restaurant. We also find an old-fashioned paper and stationary store here, ideal to buy a new ship logbook. Naturally, we visit the harbour. Many industrial and container activities dominate the area and the view. The maritime museum proves to be a real highlight, where the impressive naval history of Genua is displayed. When we climb back on board in the evening, we look back at a lovely day trip. And there is a light breeze forecast for tomorrow!
Yet when we wake up the next morning there is not a breath of wind. We check again, and yesterday’s wind expectations evaporate as quickly as the renewed forecast is downloaded. The wind is predicted to be lighter and starting later. Disappointed, we decide to wait a few hours and take on an action item that has been on our to-do list for some time: the start-up of our water maker. Now that the high season has started, we don’t plan to be in marinas anymore. And since we used to refill our water tank in marinas every now and then, it’s time to take a next step to being more self-reliant. We carefully follow the operating instructions, and the machine starts to run. Ivar volunteers to test and tastes…. crystal clear deliciousness! Our water maker runs flawlessly, and produces around 25 litres of fresh water from sea water per hour. It consumes only 100W of electricity, which we easily charge with our solar panels and wind generator. Happy with our new, sustainable water supply we lift the anchor. Painstakingly slowly we make our way along the coast. Luckily there is enough to see, as we pass the national park with the five coastal villages known as “Cinque Terre”. When darkness falls, we drop the anchor in a beautiful and well-protected bay near the village of Le Grazie.
The sun awakens us the next morning. We dive into the crystal clear water, swim around the boat and rinse off with fresh water from our water maker. When we look around us during breakfast, we realize how beautiful our new bay is. Green forests, steep cliffs and another colourful, charming Italian town invite us to kayak to the shore and start exploring. Le Grazie proves to be a very Italian village with very few tourists and mainly residents. The large shipyard with many classic sailing yachts surely is the eye-catcher in the centre of town.
We make some local hikes to nearby Portovenere and Campiglia, which are both very scenic. The hikes are just as beautiful, and surely a lot less crowded, than the hiking route along the five “Cinque Terre” villages, which we undertake later that week.
On a day that we don’t hike, we welcome Gregorio. He is a journalist working for a leading Italian online magazine, Liguria Nautica. He heard about us via Alessandra, and is taking quite a detour to visit us and conduct an interview. He waves at us from the quay, so we pick him up by kayak, and answer all of his many enthusiastic questions. His article is already online the next day. It marks our first appearance in a foreign magazine!
At the Pace it Deserves
As we look back on our first month in Italy, we realise that we didn’t cover many miles. Then again the beautiful Ligurian coast deserves to be enjoyed slowly. At the same time we’re now eager to sail further south. Elba awaits, so let’s check that weather forecast again…