Despite the strong headwinds, we make progress sailing west. We visit Malta, Tunisia and Sardinia. And celebrate a lively Christmas in Palma de Mallorca.
Chania (GRC) – Palma de Mallorca (ESP)
We won’t forget our last night in Chania easily. A depression brings strong westerly winds with heavy thunderstorms and wind gusts. They push Luci against the town quay, putting maximum pressure on our fenders. When the wind veers and becomes northerly, the swell enters the harbour. The pressure is off the fenders, but now Luci rolls, jumps and moves like a wild horse resisting to be tamed. We throw all the ropes, stretching rubbers and anti-chafing hoses that we have into the battle. Ivar climbs out of bed three times to check and make adjustments to the lines and hoses. Neither of us catches any meaningful sleep, as the swell decreases only at dawn. Time for an inspection! The good news is that our ropes and fenders are all in one piece. But in one night they have worn as much as they would normally wear in one year.
Planning for a New Record
This time of year, the notorious north-westerly Mistral wind dominates the western Med. It causes strong headwinds on our route to Gibraltar, so we want to avoid sailing when it blows as much as possible. In turn, when the winds are fair, we aim to sail as far as possible. With this strategy in mind, we identify our next stop: Malta.
At a distance of 470 nautical miles, it will be our longest trip. It’s not like we have much choice anyway. We cannot stop in Libya, as it’s not safe, and Sicily is no closer. So we frantically study the weather charts and grib files to find a suitable weather window. Ivar thinks he’s found one: “A fair northerly wind is expected, followed by a few days with light westerly headwinds. In five days, a south-westerly breeze should push us to Malta.” It’s not great, but as good as it gets, we both conclude. So after the strong winds have passed, we get ready to leave.
A Slow Start
The swell is still significant when we leave Chania, and we don’t adjust well after 10 days on land. We stay in the cockpit and limit our movements. It gets worse when we pass Cape Spathi, Crete’s most northerly point. A nasty cross- swell develops when waves from the north mix with older, larger ones from the west. Not much later the wind dies down. Disappointed, we look at each other. That’s not what the forecast said! Luci is rolling heavily and our sails slam against the rigging. We roll away the genoa and stow the mainsail. We try the genaker. It works for a while, but when the wind is completely gone we take that down as well. With only our mizzen sail up against too heavy rolling, we wait for wind and barely move that first night.
In the early morning, our patience is rewarded. A westerly wind picks up and enables us to sail again. Sailing close to the wind, Luci is moving gently trough the waves. Steadily heeling to port, and no longer rolling back and forth, life on board becomes much more comfortable. It feels great, but one look at our instruments is enough to get rid of that feeling. Our progress towards Malta is barely two knots. We’re actually headed for Libya. Not great, but we are happy to be sailing and continuously work to optimize our sails and course.
Preparing for Trouble
Two days later we find ourselves only 100 nautical miles from the Libyan coast. “When is that south-westerly wind coming?” Ivar is getting a bit impatient, so we eagerly study the grib files downloaded via satellite. Dark red arrows, indicating 30 knots of wind from the west and later northwest, make us feel disappointed and anxious. The south-westerly wind we counted on will only come after two days of strong headwinds. The weather gods have clearly changed their minds.
To make the most it, and while the weather is still calm, we cook food for the next few days and prepare our heavy weather cutter jib. It’s quiet around us, until we get close to a gigantic American aircraft carrier. They seem as interested in us as we in them and send a helicopter on reconnaissance. Through an open door a soldier looks down at us, but after a quick loop around Luci they let us sail on without even calling us on the VHF.
Stronger winds reach us on day 6, announced by a dark cloud heading our way. We proactively roll away half the genoa and reef the mainsail. We’re only just done when the cloud catches up on us and brings pouring rain and wind gusts. Luci heels over sharply. We quickly click our lifelines to the cockpit safety rings and hold on tight. “How could I’ve been so stupid” Ivar shouts over the howling wind. “We should have reefed much more. This is not just a cloud, it must be the front of the heavy weather system”. After a few minutes the dark cloud passes. The rain stops and the wind eases somewhat. Nothing seems broken, what a lucky escape. We quickly roll away the rest of the genoa, hoist our heavy weather cutter jib, set a second reef in our mainsail and stow away the mizzen sail. Now we are ready for the strong winds. And it doesn’t take long for those to arrive. When the wind gradually shifts to the northwest, we tack to port. It won’t be a comfortable tack in these strong winds, but it should position us nicely once the south-westerly wind will arrive.
The waves grow larger and send lots of water over deck. Luci takes on each wave in a stride, and inspires us to do the same. The tiring conditions last all night, only to culminate in the morning. The wind now blows a steady 35-40 knots. In the gusts the noise is deafening, especially when enormous amounts of water wash over deck and into the cockpit. We hide behind the steel sprayhood, while Luci seems to say: “Don’t worry guys, I was built for this.” Although our confidence in the strong long-keeled ketch increases, day 7 is tough for us as crew. Below deck everything is a challenge and the galley stays closed. We eat muesli bars and drink some tea and water.
Nine Days at Sea
When the strong winds finally abate, we can hoist more sail. The waves are still impressive, but we manage to make some coffee and food again. Bit by bit we come back to life. In the afternoon of day 8, the promised south-westerly wind finally arrives. Without showers or wind gusts this time. We tack for the – hopefully – last time and can now sail straight to Malta. With only another 130 nautical miles to go, and with a 15-20 knots beam reach wind we race towards its capital city, Valetta.
When we arrive there in the evening of day 9, we treat ourselves to a marina. Helpful marina staff helps us get moored and hands us a key to the shower block. Can they read our minds or was it so obvious that we needed one? On our way over, our “achievement” sinks in. We never stayed out at sea so long before and we’ve moved the bar in terms of defying bad weather conditions. It wasn’t always pleasant, but has filled us with confidence. In the future, longer trips will become the rule rather than the exception.
Malta’s multi -cultures
Even the cheapest marina proves to be expensive in Malta, despite the low season. We enjoy the luxury of the showers and the facilities, but work around the clock to clean the salt that has found its way into every little corner of the boat, do laundry, stock up on groceries and do some repairs. No less than five well-sorted chandleries compete for our business when we’re in need for a new bow light and some bolts to fix the loose planks on our diving platform. We manage to get it all done in two days, so we move to the anchorage directly in front of the Royal Malta Yacht Club.
From here we explore the island the densely populated and intriguing European island-state. Impressive sites testify to its complex and multi-cultural past. We visit a prehistoric temple dating back 5,000 years, the illustrious St John’s co-cathedral, and the medieval walled city of Mdina. Interspersed are highly visible signs of British rule, which gives the country a unique and captivating flavour.
Get Trashed Malta
One day we roam the streets wondering why all the shops are closed. When we ask a by-passer, Melissa, an American student in environmental sciences, tells us that it’s All Saints day. We start chatting and she tells us about Cane, a fanatic diver who is passionate about the sea. He started “Get Trashed Malta”, a grassroots organization that organizes clean-ups of the sea around the island.
We meet him and fellow diver Anna for a drink and hear their stories about the large amounts of trash that they collect. We’re happy to share some ideas from our end to try to further raise awareness and work towards a policy of prevention. We would have loved to seem them in action, but the wind is finally veering. After ten days it signals the end of our stay on Malta.
A southerly wind is forecasted to blow for two days, ideal to get us to Tunisia. It’s closer on route to Gibraltar than Sicily, its coastal areas seem safe and it will give us a chance to explore a new culture, country and continent.
As soon as we leave the lee of Malta the wind becomes stronger and we reef the genoa and mainsail. By the time we pass the Italian island of Pantelleria, the wind has increased to at least 30 knots with showers. We sail on with the heavy weather jib and a double reefed mainsail. With the memory of the strong headwinds still fresh in our minds, we enjoy the beam reach course a lot. With more than eight knots we’re flying towards Cape Bon – the most north eastern tip of Tunisia.
“Tunisian Coastguard, this is sailing yacht Lucipara2, calling you on Channel 16, over”. Multiple times Ivar calls the Tunisian coastguard for permission to enter the coastal waters, but we get no answer. We proceed anyway. After rounding the Cape, the waves quickly disappear and the wind abates. We set more sail and enjoy a sunny breakfast on a calm sea. The wind brings us as far as Bizerte, one of the Tunisian ports of call where we can officially enter the country. Again we try to contact the coastguard along the way, but still no reply. Even the marina doesn’t answer our VHF calls. Just as we start wondering if perhaps our radio broke down, the Bizerte pilots call us. But as soon as they learn that we’re a sailboat headed for the marina and therefore in no need of a pilot, they lose interest.
The marina harbour master seems to compensate for his silence on the VHF by frantically waving at us from the quay breakwater. He directs us to a comfortable berth on a brand new pontoon, and takes our lines. Communication is all in French, so Floris takes over from Ivar as soon as the conversation goes beyond “bonjour”, “merci” and “un petit peu”. Not much later the customs and immigration staff arrive. On noonsite we read stories about officials asking for “gifts”, but have no intention of fuelling any form of corrupt behaviour. Three people climb on-board, look around, check some cupboards but prove to be easy going. Within an hour we’re officially in Tunisia.
The marina in Bizerte looked fantastic online but the pictures are just artist impressions of some desired outcome. It is nowhere near finished. There is hardly any staff around and certainly no English spoken. But at least the pontoons are new, electricity is provided, the showers kind of work and there is a security guy on watch. We’re eager to explore Bizerte town, but decide to wait until the next morning.
As soon as we leave our gated community and walk into Bizerte town, we find ourselves in another world. Donkey carts are overtaken by cars on the road, we hear Arabic all around us and the street-market seems endless. Stacks of vegetables are sold from booths, cars or just off the pavement. People are going through heaps of clothes in search of something they like. Small stores sell colourful herbs and spices in bulk. The people we meet are very friendly and welcoming. At the market we stock up on a local specialty: dried dates. Yummy.
Just as we warm up to explore more of this exciting North-African country, another weather window presents itself. A south-westerly wind is forecasted, more than long enough to sail to Sardinia. There we can wait out strong winds from the northwest. Although we would love to stay longer, this opportunity to go further west is too good to miss and we decide to leave. The harbourmaster contacts the customs and immigration officials for checking out. As we still want fill up our tank in the fishing harbour, we ask the officials if that’s ok. They suggest to do the checkout there and leave with our passports.
When we arrive at they fuel pontoon, they’re already there. After we’ve filled up our tank, the officials inform us that we must pay a mooring fee. When Floris protests, their play, Act I, begins. It involves a lot of gesticulating, assurances that their demands are legitimate, and played outrage (“it’s only 20 euros!”). Act II is set in motion when we tell them that we simply don’t have that many dinars left. Phone calls and bad cop, good cop role play ensues. We open our wallet to take out the last 37 dinars – around ten euros – and after ten more minutes we get an officially looking receipt for 36. “One dinar change for the road”, their boss smiles triumphantly, condescendingly.
A quick inspection of our boat follows. The official oversees the low ceiling in the front and bangs his head. Karma?! We get our passports back, stamps included. We leave with mixed feelings, sorry that these officials tainted our impression of Tunisia. When we leave the breakwater behind us and set sail, we hear a voice on the VHF. “Lucipara 2, Lucipara 2 this is the Tunisian Coastguard, over”. We look at each other and laugh out loud. They finally found us! They wish us a good trip to Sardinia.
After a slow start, the wind picks up. The beam reach course makes it not too uncomfortable and blows us to Sardinia in no-time. We arrive at the deserted anchorage at Marina de Teulada on Sardinia’s south coast in the early morning. It’s well protected for both south-westerly and north-westerly winds. Our anchor firmly sets in a sandy seabed during our first attempt. We’ll need to rely on it to stay safe for the strong mistral winds that are now rapidly approaching.
Later that afternoon, the first heavy showers arrive, bringing heavy rains and remarkably cold air. We close the cabin doors, light up our wood stove and our oil lamp. While we write and read in our warm and cosy cabin, the wind gusts whistle through our rigging and the rains wash away the salt on Luci’s decks. All we can do is wait it out the storm and make the best of it. We spend the next four days cocooning in our cabin, catching up on our blogs, vlogs and prepare our Christmas card.
Passage to Palma
We cheer at our screen when we check the weather forecast. An easterly wind is taking over! Just long enough to reach Mallorca, 300 nautical miles due west. We can’t wait to celebrate Christmas in lively Palma de Mallorca. As the strong winds abate and the skies clear, we lift our anchor. Three days of downwind sailing later, we drop our anchor in a cosy anchorage behind the small islands of Bendinat near Palma de Mallorca. When we kayak ashore, we stumble upon a direct bus to Palma. Half an hour later we find ourselves walking the streets of the old town. We pass its impressive cathedral, and feel somewhat overwhelmed by all the luxurious stores and restaurants. It’s been a long time since we visited such a prosperous and lively place. We check out the various marinas, compare prices and look forward to spending Christmas in Palma.
Supported by the Christmas sponsorship of Floris’ mum we move to the marina of the Royal Club Nautico de Palma. Two marineros direct us to a prime spot on the pontoon, right in front of the clubhouse. The facilities are very comfortable and extremely clean, surely the best we’ve had so far on our trip. It’s also close to the town centre and being able to walk there without having to paddle in our kayak is a real treat.
The lively town is clearly in the mood for Christmas. We hear Christmas songs everywhere, and the lack of decorated trees is more than compensated by the many nativity scenes on display in various public venues and store windows. We get in the mood, too, and even attend the impressive night mass in the Cathedral. Back on board, we light our little Christmas tree. Since we did not plan for our arrival here in advance, neither family nor friends are joining us for Christmas. This year we celebrate it together. Ivar digs out a bottle of organic Port wine, which proves to be a tasty combination with a local old cheese. Between the various games, we reflect on our progress.
We are very happy to have reached Palma exactly one month after we left Chania. The 1,100 nautical miles weren’t always very pleasant, but sailor’s dementia makes it seem much better than it was. The prospect of more adventures and discoveries to come, makes our Christmas even merrier. Bring it on!