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Barry's Blog # 45 - What's that ahead of us?

A B Sea's head sail

Night sailing comes in different flavours. There's the relatively uneventful passage making across large distances of open water where the only excitement you get is when the occasional 1,200 foot cargo ship passes by 1.5 nautical miles away. And then there is navigating by reading what your chart says and trying to visually spot that small white light that flashes 3 times every 15 seconds against the background of all the lights on the shore whilst watching out for other vessels moving all around you. The latter is nerve wracking the first few times you do it.

As a gentle introduction to night sailing we did an 18 hour trip from mainland Spain to the island of Mallorca. The trip began with us refuelling at Greenwich marina, near Altea, Spain at 5.00pm on Tuesday 4th September and arriving at Palma Nova, Mallorca at 11.00am on Wednesday 5th September. Unfortunately there was no wind so we had to motor all the way and we used 68 litres of fuel.

While we were in Mallorca I did try and organise a meet up with my friend Des Mitchell, but it was short notice and our timing was out of whack, so that plan has been shelved until A B Sea returns to the Spanish Balearic Islands sometime in the future.

After a good night's sleep at anchor in Mallorca we headed to the fuel dock at the nearby marina, topped off the fuel tank and by 10.15am on Thursday 6th September we were once again motoring north to Cala Bona for a dinner stop. After a couple of hours rest we headed away from Mallorca to Menorca. This overnight hop was about 10 hours and we arrived 8.00am on Friday 7th September.

The cala at Mahon on the north east tip of the island of Menorca is beautiful and is now on our list of places to thoroughly explore when we return to the Balearics. On this passage our stay at Mahon was just long enough to refuel, buy fresh bread and check the wind prediction update at 9.00am, then we were off on our biggest hop of this passage which was across to Sardinia.

Don't go south

From Menorca there are two ways to get past Sardinia, either to the north or to the south. The wind prediction website showed us that there would be a large storm to the south with winds gusting to 35 knots right on the nose. As an inexperienced sailor even I knew that those conditions would be no fun at all, so we headed north.

Troubleshooting problems

Our departure from Menorca was at 9.30am on Friday 7th September and for the first time there was 15 knots of apparent wind coming just off the port bow, perfect for getting both sails out, but our furling mainsail did not want to come to the party as it got stuck with only about a foot of sail unfurled. It seems that when the main was last furled away it was not done with enough tension on the outhaul which meant that it was wrapped away baggily inside the mast. The fix was to pull it in and out several times to tighten up the bagginess and then it unfurled normally. This was when Mike suggested that the inhaul line be moved to the port side jammers so that we could have use of both winches to keep the tension on when furling the mainsail away. It's worked well so far and this knowledge and experience that Mike and Elaine bring on board is invaluable and is just one of the many reasons we invited them to complete this passage with us.

With both sails out we began a journey that turned out to be a 42 hour non-stop hop, with us finally dropping our anchor at Porto Rotondo on the north east coast of Sardinia at 3.30am on Sunday 9th September. Initially our plan had been to leave Menorca and head for Bonifacio on the south coast of Corsica to anchor overnight. As with most things on a boat, plans don't always work out the way you think they will and we arrived at the western end of the Straits of Bonifacio just as darkness fell. This was not ideal, as heading into an anchorage that you've not been to before at night can be fraught with danger. An executive decision was made that we'd navigate through the straits and pull into a large anchorage in Sardinia that Mike had been to several times before.

The water between Corsica and Sardinia is very busy and there is a traffic separation scheme in place so that massive cargo ships can pass each other safely. Vessels entering from the west must stick to the northern coast of Sardinia and vessels entering from the east must stick to the southern coast of Corsica. The way through the straits is also a dog leg and involves several islands at the eastern end.

How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

I was at the helm for this night navigation and the task seemed very daunting, but Mike said don't think about the whole picture, just look at your chart for the next navigation light you need, find it with your eyes, navigate to it and move on to your next light. That advice worked perfectly and I also managed to not crash into several other vessels that were traversing the straits that night.

We were all very tired when we eventually dropped our anchor early Sunday morning in Porto Rotondo in Sardinia. The boys had a beer, the girls had a wine, and after some hot food we collapsed into our respective beds for a few hours sleep.

The next morning after refuelling, our departure from Sardinia was at 11.45am on Monday 10th September and on this hop we were heading for the Italian island of Ponza, 159 nautical miles away to the east. After another day and night hop of 22 hours we dropped our anchor in Porto de Ponza, another picturesque location, at 09.30 on Tuesday 11th September.

The majority of our night sails were uneventful, but there was a small incident on our overnight to the island of Ponza. Aannsha was at the helm, Elaine was keeping watch and Mike and I were dozing in the cockpit. All was well until Aannsha exclaimed "There's a boat just appeared right ahead of us! What should I do?" Mike, Elaine and I were instantly up and all eyes were focused forward. I peered ahead into the inky blackness and there was indeed something glowing reddish directly in front of us. Grabbing the binoculars for a closer look allowed me to proudly announce to everyone that it was in fact not a boat, it was just the tip of the crescent moon coming up over the horizon. After some jovial ribbing about crashing into the moon we all settled down again for an unexciting night.

With the larger part of our passage now behind us we took the chance to have a rest day, restock on fresh foods and refuel. The fuel dock at Ponza very busy with lots of small and large ferries coming and going all day and I was totally impressed when one big ferry came into the harbour and did the equivalent of a handbrake turn to dock stern to against the harbour wall. His manoeuvre was doubly impressive because the water depth at the fuel dock was just over 1 metre which meant that we couldn't get A B Sea in there and our refuelling was done with us driving our jerry cans back and forth in our dinghy to top off our fuel tank.

Wednesday 12th September at 11.15am we upped anchor at Ponza and began another 23 hour hop south to the island of Lipari. When I think of the Mediterranean I never equate it with volcanic activity but there are several active volcanos in the Med and a lot of them are located in the area of Lipari. We went past Stromboli at 26nm distance, we saw large sulphurous plumes rising up from Vulcano Island and we caught a glimpse the peak of Mount Etna in the hazy distance to the south.

We refuelled as soon as we arrived at Lipari which then allowed us the freedom to leave at whatever time we wanted. As we had done at several other refuelling stops along the way we had Aannsha take the helm and do the docking under Mike's supervision while I stayed well out of the way and just handled the forward lines. Aannsha's confidence at handling A B Sea has grown immensely on this trip and although she was hesitant at first she is really glad that she's had the chance to experience docking under various circumstances.

In next week's blog I'll tell you all about the final 5 days of our passage to Greece, including negotiating the Strait of Messina and we'll reveal a plot twist regarding our plans for the winter months in the northern hemisphere.

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