Form Harry to Lava Flows
Harry, as always, dead on time pulled up the drive at Meadscroft at 06.15 to take us to the airport where Easyjet’s new automated check in and bag drop had us heading to the departure lounge in minutes. We were looking forward to relaxing over coffee and newspapers but around the corner we hit the queue for security - oh no not another Stansted episode! The queue shuffled along for one and a half hours but at least here in Manchester there were announcements for imminent flights and the passengers were brought through to the front of the queue, a courtesy that Stansted airport should adopt. Lynn’s bionic hips always set off the alarm on the scanner and she has to endure the search routine and this time was no exception but we did not expect to see our hand luggage diverted to the search channel. When I enquired of the bumptious security guard why this had happened to my bag he said that it contained an electronic device (my Kindle) that I had not put in a separate tray with my lap top and IPad. When I pointed out to him that the signage stated that electronic devices over twenty centimetres should be taken out of luggage and my Kindle was less than that he had no answer. Lynn meanwhile was becoming frustrated with an even more obnoxious security fellow who was insisting that she had liquids in her bag. She explained that there were no liquids just two containers of salt and pepper nonetheless he insisted in searching all the contents of her bag except the pocket that contained her Kindle! Uncoffee’ed we ran to the gate and exasperated but thankful we had made it boarded the plane.
Our Sicilian equivalent of Harry was waiting for us and drove us through now sun scorched Sicily to the familiar Marina di Ragusa where at 15.30 we met with old friend and training partner Peter in the marina bar. Peter will be sailing with us for a couple of weeks and was looking forward to his first taste of life aboard a yacht. We had learnt that he was a Montalbano fan so had booked a table at Rosengarten our favourite restaurant at Punta Seca where Salvo Montalbano’s house is. The hire car was ready for us at the marina office and we drove the few hundred metres to the main pontoon and were soon being greeted by friends and fellow cruisers John and Midge who had just returned from a trip to Malta.
Gear stowed and Peter familiarised with the operating systems in the heads (bathroom) aboard we set off for Punta Seca where we photographed Pete around Salvo’s beach side residence. We were greeted like old friends by la patronne at Rosengarten and enjoyed the usual excellent Sicilian cuisine they always serve.
We have never been in Marina di Ragusa in the height of the season and the little town was buzzing with activity next morning as we took coffee and doughnuts alfresco at a little bar just off the tree lined main square where despite the holiday makers the old men still sat on their usual benches chatting and smoking and displaying all the exaggerated hand and arm gestures that we are becoming familiar with, although it’s still difficult to believe that they are not having serious arguments. Then on in the car to Ragusa where we did a provisioning shop at the Lidl supermarket there, piling two trolley loads into the boot and back seat. Dinner that evening with John and Midge at Allué, a restaurant at the far side of the marina was as entertaining as ever as John recited the poems of Banjo Paterson and other Australian cultural heroes.
Friday was a day of boat maintenance, cleaning and preparation as fair weather was forecast for our departure for Syracuse next day. And so it was that by 08.30 with tender hoisted on the davits and passerelle stowed we slipped our lines and motored quietly out of the marina into the open sea. It was an easy and uneventful motor sail to Syracuse where after the obligatory radio contact with the authorities we dropped our hook at the proscribed coordinates in this now so familiar bay at 17.00 and were soon in the tender and heading for Ortigia. We dined in the Piazza del Duomo on Grandma Gina’s lasagne and drank the house red. The wine was good but Grandma Gina must have been having an off day as her lasagne was not up to standard.
Our next port of call was to be Taormina where Sam and Florencia had arranged a mooring for us on one of George Rizzo’s laid moorings. Sam is working for George at his ‘Yacht Hotel’ this summer and very efficiently as we approached the mooring Sam appeared to guide us in and take our lines to our allotted large red buoy beneath the towering cliffs atop which nestles the ancient town of Taormina. George and his team provide a great service for as well as looking after the mooring and the security of visiting yachts he arranges the collection of garbage, provides a ferry service to and from the tiny and chaotically crowded little dock amongst the rocks at Naxos Giardini. Just as we were mooring a familiar voice hailed us over the VHF, our friends Dave and Trish on the beautiful, old classic, yawl Rob Roy had moored just before us. What a delightful coincidence for we had not expected to see them, so as soon as we were settled I jumped into the tender to bring them over to Pamarzi for drinks and a catch up on each other’s sailing adventures. Peter like Dave is in the building trade so they had a lot in common including exactly the same style of beard in salt and pepper hues. We were all tired after the days voyaging so retired to our respective boats to eat aboard and turn in early.
The following morning Sam arrived with warm croissants and after these delights had been devoured washed down with lots of coffee he whisked us over to Naxos Giardini where we took the local bus up the precipitously hair pinned road to Taormina where we spent the day exploring, enjoying the architecture, sights and vistas from this elevated vantage and Lynn in particular the many artisan shops.
The crew of Rob Roy were back aboard Pamarzi that evening along with Sam and Florencia for pre-dinner drinks before we all dined together up in Taormina at a restaurant where George’s daughter Georgia worked. We were fed on very typical Sicilian specialities on a softly lit, tree shaded terrace the soft night air enlivened by swooping pipistrelles on their insectivorous business while friends old and new found pleasure in each other’s company.
Whilst enjoying Taormina I was continually watching weather reports looking for the right conditions to pass through the legendary Strait of Messina where Scylla and Charybdis are said to entrap the unwary. On our southward transit two years ago we had got it right, coming through in calm conditions but nonetheless experiencing in places a six knot current and a whirlpool which momentarily grabbed the bow of our thirty five ton boat and threw it aside to the consternation of our autopilot. We were looking for similar weather and a north flowing current but that was not to be this day so a car was hired and a decision made to explore the vast, continually brooding and occasionally belching, ten thousand foot Mount Etna which dominates the whole of north eastern Sicily.
It is difficult to convey just how massive this gargantuan orifice to the earth’s molten core is, its richly cultivated slopes home to numerous towns and villages. We circumnavigated the lower slopes passing through charming little towns but we were horrified and disgusted to find particularly between the towns of Adriana and Bronte the roadside and lay byes despoiled for miles by vast quantities of domestic rubbish, blighting this fertile and richly verdant region.
In Italian, “What shall we do today dear?” says Papa. “I know.” Says Momma, “Let’s go for a run in the Fiat, we’ll take the kids and the week’s rubbish and when we find somewhere really nice we can throw it on the roadside.” Papa, “What a great idea, we’ll take next door’s to; their car is in for service.”
Up and up we climbed, seldom now exceeding second gear in our brave Fiat Bravo. The orchards and vineyards finally giving way to black, ominous lava fields the once red hot flowing rock solidified into curving swirls of black basalt but even here amidst all this desolation ejaculated through many blow holes from the earths molten core nature was taking its hold. Lava flows of only a decade or two already clothed with lichen, succulents and grasses whilst those of an earlier vintage were hosts to shrubs and trees. Higher still all was black tortuously twisted rock, cinders and ash. We decided against the final ascent by cable car, four by four and shank’s pony to the upper most caldera as Lynn’s breathing and knees were not up to it and contented ourselves exploring the many caldera below, glad of the extra clothing we had brought with us for at this height even in midsummer the air was wet and cool. The descent was slow as we made our way through cloud and mist, not until we were below three thousand feet did the blue of the Thyrrhenian reveal itself to us, still white capped in the yellow incandescence of the afternoon sun.
The wind still strong and forecast to be so on the morrow we decided to stay another day. The ever vigilant George seeing the possibility of a strengthening swell advised a long line to another of his buoys to keep our bows into it. This was sound advice and our expensive bright yellow floating line was brought into service again. We were breakfasting ashore next morning at the little café in to Naxos Giardini that made such good croissants, with Sam, Florencia, George and his partner Donatella. We had learnt that an opera, Tosca, was to be performed that evening in the ancient Greek amphitheatre set in the hillside up in Taormina. George seeing our interest very kindly offered to obtain complimentary tickets for us. The wind and rain of the day were expected to clear by 18.00 and we looked forward to a magical evening of Puccini in this historic and dramatic venue.
Lynn, Florencia, Sam and I were ferried ashore to a waiting taxi that zig zagged us up to the spectacularly lit amphitheatre where amongst the buzz of excited expectations we took our seats on two thousand five hundred year old stone slabs upon which Grecian conquerors buttocks had rested in those distant days. I wonder if like us they had remembered back then to bring cushions. The orchestra was tuning in the pit in front of the stage, the scenery cleverly set amongst the Doric columns and remaining stone walls of the stage, the view ten miles across the bay to the twinkling lights of Riposto spectacular, expectation was high. Then the stars above this alfresco scene started to disappear as we felt large drops of rain fall on our warm skin. The musicians scrambled to find covers for their precious instruments and ten minutes later they fled clutching their scantily covered woodwind, brass and strings as lightning flashed and thunder rolled. The wind dropping to nought, the storm centred directly above us, the rain pounded down on a thousand or so excitable Italians as the mass exodus began. So ended our night at the opera, we returned to Pamarzi sodden in our finery much to the amusement of Peter who had elected to stay aboard.
Thankfully though the storm heralded a change in the weather and after a final check of weather forecasts and current tables we cast off from the buoys that had held us so comfortably at 07.30 next morning and headed due north through a still lumpy sea our destination Milazzo on the north coast of Sicily which was to be our jumping off point for the Aeolian islands. We had got it right or at least right enough for after a couple of hours of plodding through a lumpy sea against the current the sea state eased and as we approached the narrower parts of the Strait the current turned and we were swept for eight miles at ten knots through the straits, passing passerella boats and finally the towering and now redundant pylon at Capo Peloro which used to carry power lines to the island above the transiting ships. Replaced now with submarine cables the pylon is preserved being of architectural interest and remains the tallest in the world.
We arrived at Milazzo at 17.30 and docked side on at very low pontoons in Marina del Nettuno. Milazzo a busy working town and the base for many ferries and tripper boats vying between Sicily and the Aeolian islands. We took supper at a pleasant if unremarkable restaurant in town and settled for an early night in preparation for our crossing to the islands tomorrow.
I settled the exorbitant berthing fee of one hundred and seventy Euros for our night’s stay and we left our berth around 08.30. We had a great reach over to Isola Vulcano where we were expecting to find an anchorage at Porto di Levante. The island a dramatic lump of black basalt its Gran Cratere gently smoking staining the upper slopes a sulphurous yellow. Porto di Levante was not for us, ferries and hydrofoils docking every twenty minutes or so brusquely rocking and swaying anchored boats with their wake, the only remaining anchoring spots thirty five or more metres deep. Around on the west side of the island we found Porto Ponente where we anchored in six metres, our hook biting first time in black sand as we laid out thirty five metres of chain and set the snubbing line. With light winds forecast and no westerlies, for this bay is open to the west, we were comfortable and safe. We swam and snorkelled in the clear waters till evening when we were treated to a spectacular sunset whilst listening to favourite operatic arias and duets. Dinner was taken aboard in the softly lit cockpit, our eighty five foot mast sharply illuminated by its new spreader mounted LED lights against the bible black backdrop of the volcano.
Sunday and a lazy start a little breakfast a little swimming but thoughts were turning to our night passage around Stromboli. Our hook came up clean out of the black sand of Porto Ponente and soon sail was aloft as we passed the dramatic rock pinnacles of Pietra Minalda in the narrow passage between the island of Vulcano and Lipari. We nosed into Rada di Lipari Marina Lunga to admire the ancient buildings but decided against mooring and headed out on the thirty five nautical mile passage to Stomboli passing the island of Panarea. Sails set on a close reach with eight knots of true wind we were making six knots in the slight sea. I left Lynn and Peter to it and got my head down for a couple of hours. The sun was setting as we approached the eastern coast of Stromboli, smoke rising from its caldera in the falling light. As the darkness deepened all we saw from this eastern side were white hot star shells thrown heavenwards. There were a myriad of anchor lights at the north end of the island where the only two anchorages of San Bartolomeo and San Lorenzo are to be found between the island proper and the rock pinnacle of Strombolicchio with its light flashing white three times every fifteen seconds. In the quiet of the night we tried to make sense of the multiplicity of lights only to be further confused by eight or more local squid boats with their glaring millions of candlepower lights luring the creatures from the deep and ruining our night vision as we made our way between anchored boats and rock strewn shallows. Once around the north end all the lights were gone, no moon , a sky full of stars, a slight sea and the towering black shadow of Stromboli to port. The only sound the chuckle of water around our bow as we eased through the soft darkness eyes peering upwards looking for activity. More star shells leapt from the crater, without sound a red glow pulsed at the summit, pulsed and died and rose again and again some upwards some curdling over the edge of the crater like milk boiling over in a pan. Half a dozen times we were treated to this strangely hypnotic spectacle as we transited the west coast sailing on into the soft darkness a course set for Cefalu on the mainland with an eta od 11.00 next day. My crew dozed as I settled in for a six hour watch that would take us past the island of Panarea, between Salina and the north coast of Lipari with the islands of Filicudi and Alicudi always to starboard. At 06.00 Lynn took the watch and I retired, sleep slow in the coming as the images of Stromboli reprised again and again in my mind.