Watching the weather forecast we realised that our next long leg of over 130 miles to the east would be done overnight, and that there was a bit of weather to the north, another strong wind coming. On the internet we were using Lama Rete Toscana. We had a data hub running on the “3” wifi. We have given up with Navtex. It cost a lot to put in, but we never used it. Perhaps we were doing it at the end of that technology, because we found it better to use smartphones and wifi hubs now available in all of the Mediterranean. It taught us some Italian, like “Onde”, for waves. But we did not need Italian to see the red blood colour seeping down from the Rhone, like someone being stabbed just above the chart– another Mistral. It does not need a night school lecture to tell us its coming our way, even if it will not be so strong by the time it gets to us. Like many decisions when sailing, we had to try and beat it because if not we would miss picking up our daughter Louisa at the rendezvous in Naples on August 5th. .. So at one hour’s notice on July 25th we set full sail, reaching in calm seas to aim for the island of Ponza across the Tyrrhenian sea.
As night fell we took over separately doing two hour watches. The sunset in shades of vermillion, had a rainbow halo. All sailors in the world know that such a halo means something is coming. This was followed by moonrise in iridescant silver. The moonlight reflected in the soft rolling sea became partly obscure by high large clouds. After midnight we knew the internet had been right, for the gods threw spectacular thunderbolts across the sky. It seemed plenty of miles away, slightly to port, ahead. So we might have been feeling smug that on our easterly course we were going to beat the storm. As the night progressed the sea remained gentle and the wind not strong, while the moon shone sometimes because the mountainous clouds were far ahead.
It reminded me that back at Avignon we berthed next to an English Broom craft motor cruiser, 40 ft. Martha explained that they always travelled long passages at night, bowling along at nearly 20 knots because the nightfall brings windless soft seas in the med. “But last time, “she had said, “was the worst night of my life. We were planing over a glassy sea as usual, but… there was no moonlight. Anything could have happened…”
So in between gin palace speeds and sailing at walking speeds there must be a happy medium, and we were pretty comfortable we would not hit something. After all they all carry lights don’t they, those fishing boats? Er I don’t know really.
However… the one yacht I could see forward of us suddenly showed a green navigation light as they turned a right angle to starboard…. So where are they going, I wondered. Why come half way across this passage then head away down to … Sicily? ( over a day away ). Were they scared of the sheet lightening? Thoughts ran though my mind about lightening hitting our mast. Should I get the kedge anchor chain out and hang it over the side, wrapped round the base of the mast? I never heard of this actually working. So watching zillions of volts stabbing at the sea, I thought about us too turning to starboard if it got closer. But it didn’t. And anyway we were still running the engine and there would not be enough fuel to go anywhere else. Sarah tells me she was lying awake in her bunk counting the time between the flash and the booms.
The fuel calculation went something like this.
Why not just sail in the gentle light breeze – which we might suppose would be the calm before the storm? Being too nervous of being in difficulty over 50 miles from land I suppose. We do a steady 6 knots with the iron donkey helping the sails, and there is another thing. We hate arriving late in the day to escape a storm at a new harbour in case there is not room. We have not forgotten being turned away from Antibes when a high wind arrived and gave everyone else the same idea. Small grey speedboats buzzed each way across the harbour entrance in order to chase us out. Another time, dragging our anchor in white water outside Port Grimaud we were nearly wrecked on our side onto the beach. Sarah was on the bows underwater half the time as the yacht dived, getting the anchor up. That time too, we found shelter, but only just.
These thoughts were dispelled as the beauty of the sunrise streaked through the remaining wisps of soft lemon tinted clouds. The wind did not increase while we continued; it was saving itself for later. Ponza Island rose out of the eastern glare as a silhouette, and then when seen nearer in huge turbulent folds of rock with many holes, topped by a lighthouse and backed by green verdant smallholdings. The port town embraced the south facing harbour, layers of small boxy buildings in canary yellow and blush pink, rising up the impossibly steep hill contours.
Our passage had been 159 miles in 25 hours. Some anxiety about whether there was enough fuel was dispelled, as we did not encounter head winds or waves. The Moody was fitted out with no accurate means of telling me how much the tank holds or how much diesel per hour to allow. In fact, it came with a rusty iron fuel tank flaking shards of gritty metal all over the place, and thankfully we never had a blockage due to two filters in line. The first thing we had replaced on the boat was to put in a larger 120L stainless tank, complete this time with an access panel should we ever need to clean it out. Why could not moody have made an access panel in their rusting steel tank? Their claim to be a boat of quality dipped even lower in our experience when we sorted all that out.
So by trial and error we have learned that we consume about 2 litres per hour of motoring if no sails are helping. The sums told us that the passage would take, say at 5 knots with no wind, 33 hours, so that is 66 litres. We had about 80 litres in the tank, and sure enough, about 15 litres were left when arriving. Its tricky to know how much fuel is in the tank because a simple gauge has quarters and halves marked. But not in equal divisions. Just like my first mini, the gauge accelerates to the E mark as it goes lower.
The eye-watering cost to stay there if we tied up at the pontoon was explained when we fuelled up. Over 120 euros. And anyway they were already full. Not even entertaining that sort of cost on our low cost sabbatical, we anchored in about 5m at the bay facing the harbour with about 70 other yachts, below a back drop of verdant hills of green shades from basil to chartreuse. There were smallholdings and vinyards. The slopes were abundant in foliage, and later we found all manner of veg in the small street shops. We were so delighted to see a choice of tomatoes, never just the simple less tasty supermarket ones we get in England. I will never forget my first Italian tomato as a student in a Naples hostel. It tasted like a toffee apple. These rows of lanes fringed the harbour, about two mule packs wide, and were paved in white painted concrete.
Near us was anchored a sixty foot schooner. We watched the Guardia Finanzia gunboat power up alongside, very, very close. The Guardia were dressed in black, they looked like commandos with aggressive body language. They were asking the elderly men, sitting on deck drinking café, with matching grey moustaches, for their papers. The Italians on the yacht were at ease, slowly getting everything out, and they looked like Marlon Brando in The Godfather. It must have been all clear, for then the finanzia boat turned out of the harbour and tore off at high power leaving a white foam wake.
Parrot says we should also have gunboats to harass people with unexplained wealth on yachts. All we seem to do is send polite letters out. Only one person in the past few years has been caught, trying to explain their knightsbridge property and Harrods spending. (the wife of a deposed dictator ). So have we even got any gunboats? The answer is five. Yet as Private Eye keeps reporting, at any one time only a single patrol boat is at sea, usually in the English Channel The others go on courtesy visits, or stay in dock for repairs. Do we need some joined up thinking between our navy and our revenue department?
The Italians don’t pussy foot around like us British. In the month of our arrival there the authorities announced a new seizure of alleged mafia property valued at 1.75 billion dollars. That included many dozens of businesses as well as some 700 houses, villas and buildings. Accountant Giuseppe Giuffrida, who manages seized mafia assets, was reported to say, “Confiscation of the assets that are are ill-gotten gains can come swiftly. Authorities simply look to see if the values of the property matches up with the owner’s publicly declared income.”
So it would not take many successful seizures in the UK to pay for a few more gunboats no?
Ponza is an island some 8 km long, with a history of seducing a legendary sailor by keeping him in the holiday mood. The island has a magical feel, from the grottoes, to the botanical gardens, to the underground labyrinth of Roman tunnels. They say that here was Homer’s inspiration for the sorceress Circe’s island, Aeaea, in The Odyssey. Odysseus and his men stopped for sex, drugs, and ‘wine as tawny-mild as honey’. When he landed on the island, the beautiful sorceress Circe used potions to change his crew into pigs, and then seduced their leader… ‘Low she sang in her beguiling voice, while on her loom she wove ambrosial fabric sheer and bright…..‘ The enchantments worked so well that the Greeks ended up staying a year.
This port is a holiday destination for Italians arriving by ferry. Crowds of them walked off the ramp chattering and smiling, in a good mood. All along the narrow lanes round the harbour in the boxy buildings there were greengrocers, fishmongers and cafes, for the apartments were largely self catering. How authentic, to find holiday shopping free of the multinationals, just local enterprise. No high rise construction has been permitted.
Ponza is the largest in the archipelago, and has another history as a place of exiles: the emperor Nero banished his wife Octavia here. Augustus sent his daughter Julia as punishment – for an alleged affair – but on discovering the delights of the place, built his own villa. The mainland is 50 miles to the east, and must have been quite a row for the galley slaves. Another exile was Nero’s mother, Agrippina, sister to Caligula. Learning this reminded me that we have a client we nicknamed by that man’s name.
Parrot says you can tell Italian men by their shoes. We watched a pair of white shoes ascending the harbour quay. They belonged to an officer in a white uniform, who sat down in the end bar, “Il Contino”, nursing a bright orange drink with slices of fruit. I have never seen white shoes on a man in England, nor have I seen his drink before. But when we asked for the same as he had, we became hooked on it, the Italian spritz, Aperol. It came with a mini feast of small pizzas, anchovies, a bowl of small shrimps in salsa crisps and nuts. We still, however, cannot make them understand that we don’t want a plastic bottle of water. We pipe up, “Aqua nature,” or “ non bottegli “…It still comes bottled. Parrot interrupts them to explain that it takes two litres of water to make a one litre plastic bottle. The state of California has banned bottled water by the time of our trip. But we forgive this one problem for we became seduced by the Italian quality of life, and always have Aperol now on board ready for when the sun dips below the yardarm.
There was only one other British flagged yacht. All around us were red, white and green ensigns. And that night another habit of the Italians turned into a visit that was a little closer than we expected. A white cruiser, three decks, of about 40m slowly drifted round to wake us up as they gently bumped us, and the crew banged on our hull. Arriving after us it was their fault, forgetting that the night breeze turns boats of different types around slowly at different speeds. On went their underwater lights, making a powerful halo around them as they stood on the bows. ” You anchored too close to us, “ said Sarah. “Yes, sorry,” came back a small voice over their bows, onion fender in one hand, drink and cigarette in the other. The owner was wearing his chefs hat. Yes, but it was not possible to be cross with them for being so charmingly Italian. Like most yachts we kept our fenders out, but you don’t know which corner of your boat is going to be touched. We pulled in about 15m of our 40m chain. That left 25m out in about 8m depth. It was only the light airs of the night breeze which had moved us, so we felt safe, and the boats did not touch again. “Thank you, “ they said. We went to sleep as Shearwater hovered on the dreamy , milky haze of their underwater lights. Parrot offered to buy me some for Christmas. Sarah says she will divorce me if we do.
The lemon and cadmium colours of the buildings were such a feast on the eye , as was the fish (called something like Bream, though not Bream really), we bought and cooked. We, like Odysseus, did not want to leave. But knowing that the wind was coming, we sailed east again with the light airs on port side, full and bye as they used to say. Almost a good angle for the spinnaker, but, wanting to keep above 5 knots we motor sailed, bound for the next island 45 miles away towards the mainland, Procida.