Almerimar to Sicily

Christian and I have arrived in Almerimar and it is now time to start thinking about leaving, all of the repairs are done and we need to start preparing. Our stern to mooring means that we have the pasarelle out to walk to shore which goes under the solar. To achieve this the rib is down and since the passarelle is stored in the lazarette, and we had work done in there, the entire contents need to be reloaded.

We have spoken to our neighbours who have suggested we can step across their boat if we need to get ashore after we have stored everything. This is particularly useful when putting on the rib cover which is possible just from the boat but is a lot easier if someone is on the far side making sure the cover is in the right place.

It takes some time to load our full lazarette with everything fitting into place like a jigsaw. It is difficult and especially surprising when we consider the stuff that isn’t going back in. How did we get it in before? The rib is lifted and the cover on but again it is taking time and it is looking like 5pm before we leave even though we started preparing at lunchtime. Finally, I need to adjust the stern lines so that we can slip them off from the boat. This is easier said than done since they refuse to budge and after much swearing and eventually putting mariadz into astern so that we can ease the pressure on them, we are able to get them ready.

Leaving the berth is easy, we drop the lazy lines that have held the bow for two weeks and let them sink before we head off. Maria brings Mariadz off sideways so that we stay away from the boat next to us and we are clear. Off to the fuel pontoon to top up the tanks with about 100 litres before we head off.

The wind is blowing across the marina and is reasonably strong at about 15 knots as Maria approaches turns hard over and ferry glides into the concrete fuel pontoon with the fenders taking the pressure before we tie her on. We add 94 litres of fuel and Mariadz is completely full and we now have 670 in the rank and another 85 in cans.

As we prepare to leave I am overthinking about the wind and decide that rather than doing our normal approach of coming off sideways, we will spring off as we have multiple times before which gives us a safer method when the wind is blowing you onto a dock. This involves loading up the bow with fenders and Maria moving mariadz slowly onto these and the dock which moves the stern out into the channel. Once it is out enough, you slip into astern and come off backwards before, once far enough away, turning and going out as usual. With our sideways approach, you steer into the dock with some revs to get the stern to “bite” which moves it out and then bow thrust off to get the bow out there and then drive off. As you can see these manoeuvres are very similar.

I clearly haven’t communicated the change of plan properly and Maria was down below when I moved the fenders to provide the protection for the bow. It means we are talking at cross purposes when I say steer in and go forward. maria thinks we are coming straight off but when she goes to use the bow thruster I tell her no but she is committed and has used the right power for the plan she thought we had. The hull hits the the fuel pontoon in the only place I didn’t have fenders. What a terrible start and Maria is blaming herself when it isn’t her fault. Firstly I hadn’t communicated well enough, then I didn’t have fenders along the whole side, even having one I hadn’t moved over which would have gone beautifully into the gap, finally the spring on the bow which holds us to the dock for the manoeuvre was loose allowing us to move forward before it took effect which was just laziness and a lack of concentration on my part. There’s a mark and some damage so we will be paying our tax for being stupid. The marina staff have taken a look at the scuff but it will be Sicily before we get to fully view the results of our mistake. It is frustrating and upsetting and Maria blames herself even though it is my fault. Still better than her blaming me, we can’t have both of us doing that for hours 🙂

With a quiet boat, we head out to sea and set our course south east to clear the headlands before heading nearly due east towards Sicily.

Our new engine communicates with the navigation so we now have full engine data that can tell us exact consumption at the revs we are at. Unfortunately we are still in a big sea and the wind is of course on the nose. All this is holding us up and we are at quite high revs making little progress. This trip looks like a lot of motoring with the five day weather forecast we have. Hopefully we will be able to use our sails to conserve some fuel. On average, at higher revs we are getting about one mile for a litre of fuel, which makes the range calculation easy! The timescale for our fuel is also easy since it is just under five days at 6 knots. This improves drastically if we are reasonably motorsailing and is of course best when we are sailing.

We head out and drop below the headlands to due east which is pretty much our course for the next five days!

However, we have been very silly. We have celebrated my return and the arrival of Christian a little too much and we are hungover and dehydrated. So I have now destroyed our immaculate record of not feeding the fish through Biscay by making sure I had an empty stomach on the first night! The next morning, I am a little better but the combination with little sleep is not good and I will need to recover my stomach slowly and gently having made sure the fish were ok again!

There are three of us on this trip and so a change to the watch system was required. We toyed with a few options, three hours on and six hours off is popular. However, we had benefited through Biscay having two people on watch and although that isn’t possible this time without wiping people out, we are keen to have a good overlap. We finalise our thoughts for the first night as effectively three hours on but you stay for an extra hour when the new person comes on watch. This means you have company for half of your four hour watch, which is nice but also useful if we need to change sail plan, and everyone gets a five hour break which should give the opportunity for a proper sleep and ensure this is sustainable for a number of days. We promise to review during the second day to see if it works but the first night I always a bit strange because everyone is excited and maria and I are also beating ourselves up for the fuel pontoon mistake.

In Almerimar, before we left, some of the crew of a large oyster, Dalliance, met us since we had mutual friends in Ipswich. They are planning a similar trip but intend to leave a little later than us after their evening meal. I’m sure they will catch us up though.

This trip is generally in 2-3km of water with only the occasional passing cargo ship to break the monotony. Apart from the dolphins shortly after leaving which were doing acrobatics off our port side but they didn’t come over to play with us, we have found med and Atlantic dolphins to be quite bashful, although it could also be that we aren’t going fast enough to give them entertainment in our bow wave.

Our evening watches start at 9pm and Maria has prepared us fajitas for dinner. I will be Maria’s company for the first hour. The wind is building but still in our faces and is rising to 20 knots. Maria and I implement our nighttime sail setup which will be half the main. That done, mariadz is Comfortably riding the swell but it is a bit bouncy for the rest of us. Still, we knew it would be like this for the 24hours out of port but we hoped we would make a bit better time.

The first set of night watches are fine although we did have to cross a busy route during the night, something I usually try to avoid. Our watch system also requires one person a night to do the first and last watch. Accidentally, I have let Maria do this which wasn’t my intention but I guess we will each be doing this over the next three days so much of a muchness. In the morning, the swell is dying down but so this is the wind until some clouds on the horizon promise a little more breeze. Christian and I are quick to seize the opportunity and get the main fully out as well as our staysail and headsail. We are cruising along at nearly seven knots although the engine is also helping at a measly 1500 revs. This means we get more than 3 miles per litre – that’s more like it. Except, just as we are settling into the ride, it’s over and we are back to 4knots of wind in front of us so the headsail and staysail go away and we keep the main for balance.

This sets the tone for the rest of the day. The monotony only being broken by Dalliance, the oyster from Almerimar, hailing us on 16 to see how we are doing and the occasional passing ship. This is of course mine and Maria’s wedding anniversary but no time to celebrate 😦

Night two and I am on the double shift while maria and Christian each have the single shift and the odd hour. During the day we have taken advantage of the easy nature of the trip to catch up on sleep so hopefully we will now get into the rhythm of the watches. Just as we start and Maria goes to bed we are buzzed by a couple of dolphins jumping out of the water on the starboard side. They head to our bow but quickly get bored of us and move on. That is the sum of our excitement for the evening apart from the odd cargo ship coming within a mile or two. All of the shifts are like this until the last one where I take over. We can see on AIS that we are being caught by a cargo ship who will overtake us but at exactly the same time there is one coming the other way straight at us who is also being overtaken by a fourth ship. So the two of us are quite constrained. We all jostle for position and there is a mile between all of us as we simultaneously meet in a line. It was the most excitement we had all day! The last part of my shift is on my own, and having heard Algeria coastguard informing all ships that the gulf of Algeria has navigation prohibited, I recheck our course. We were planning to be 15-20 miles off shore so outside of territorial waters which is the direct route to Sicily but I will move us a little further offshore. I also adjust the waypoints so they give us an expected target for each day, let’s see how that works out. Breaking the tedium continues as I get all of the engine and fuel data on one of my navigation screens and adjusting the screen for the handheld autopilot… you have to have some time on your hands for that. Of course, the fixed autopilot is creating this time as it operates perfectly with its replacement part and having been rebuilt expertly.

As the morning progresses, rest of the crew emerge, they have all had a good sleep. It’s hot and sunny and I sit here writing notes, as Christian reads,having updated our log, and Maria lies around in her bikini. Time for me to get some rest.

They say that the Mediterranean has two types of wind: too little or too much. For most of the day we have had a gentle westerly that has been just enough to mean no wind is going across the deck. It is 30+ degrees and very hot and sticky. Time for maria to break out the dominoes and teach Christian tabletop warfare!

Maria has decided on an early Mediterranean style dinner with salads, meats, tortilla and cheeses. It is perfect at the end of a really hot day with some really great tastes. We are still seeing very occasional ships and a bit of rubbish in the sea but we seem to be in our groove now.

Another monotonous night with very little to report except the very occasional encounter with a cargo ship. However, visibility drops to about a mile so I put our radar on to make sure we can see and be seen.

It is three days since we left Almerimar. After a slow start we have had a couple of consistent days of approximately 160 miles a day. However, there has been negligible wind to motorsail and what wind there was on the first day really slowed us down. Three days of solid motoring has used a lot of fuel too. At reasonable revs, we use about 5-6 litres an hour so we have probably used half a tank getting to here and we will need to refuel. Our options are Sicily or Tunisia for refuelling which are both achievable even if we have to motor all the way there. You would have thought that Tunisia, as an oil state, would be cheaper for fuel but I guess there is only one way to be sure… over the next 12 hours or so we will have to make a decision, especially if we want to be sure to arrive wherever we are in daylight. Tunisia, as nice as it would be to get cheap fuel, is unlikely having rechecked the visa requirements and not knowing whether they would just let us refuel. It seems unlikely from the books and we can’t access the internet to check real world experience. In the interim, Christian and I add the spare fuel from the cans to the tank using my clever little pump which ensures no mess.

In the morning, we are hailed by name and call sign, always a sign of officialdom. Have we done something wrong? We heard the previous day, a standard Algerian message concerning their waters being protected from any traffic but we are a long way outside of this. The call comes from “naval operations” who are asking us our destination. It is a very polite conversation with us each referring to the other as “sir” as he requests our destination port and I explain that we are heading to Marsala in Sicily. It starts another day of keeping an eye on big ships and seeing lots of plain sea with the occasional dolphin coming over to play.

As night approaches, we have a little consistent wind on our port side and are able to take advantage by motor sailing with all sails up. We are bombing along at over eight knots through the water but the tide is against us at the moment so we are only going seven over ground, it imagine how slow we would be without sails. This continues for four or five hours which means we have a good start to our fourth day at sea. Our moods are improved even further later on when a pod of dolphins, probably around twenty, come over to play. They are jumping fully out of the water and as usual it warms the spirit, not that we need much warming, it has been hot again today.

We are back to the day 1 watch which means Maria has the double watch and Christian and I have the odd hour at the beginning and the end. The watch starts fine and just before I finish at 10pm, I check the ships and make sure we are ok. Fifteen minutes after I go to bed though there has been a wind shift and our rig of half main and stay sail is not doing anything. In fact the self tacking stay sail is now bouncing around the track which will wake Christian up. Maria gets me up to help with the sail change, we take another moment to review the traffic coming up and then it is back to bed for me and Maria has two hours on her own. Maria continued to be busy as we approach the funnel between Tunisia and Sicily which should be very busy with shipping. Maria is relieved by Christian at midnight and that is her opportunity to get four or five hours sleep before she is back on watch. Unfortunately Maria has been really struggling with sleep for the last few days. I think being out of contact whilst looking for a job, having a daughter who is ill, a cat that is ill and everything else is weighing on her mind and she is struggling to switch off. When I get up shortly before 3pm to take my watch, Maria is up with me saying she can’t sleep. We have to change round the watch system since Maria is going to stay up, so I am back to bed for a few hours and will get up at 6am when hopefully both Christian and Maria will catch up with their rest.

In the morning, the wind has completely changed direction but not enough to allow us to sail. It’s not as bad as the other day when the wind exactly counteracted the speed we were doing which meant that there was no air going across the deck and it was super hot. The morning is brighter than recently and we can actually see the sunrise rather than just thinking someone has switched the lights on. We now have 200 miles to Sicily and our scheduled stop for fuel. Hopefully, the forecasted weather from Saturday confirmed over the radio today will mean that we have a little more wind to play with.

It comes to pass and suddenly we have a bit of a westerly wind. Enough for us to set up goose wing with the main on one side and the Genoa on the other. However, we are rolling quite a bit which makes the sails lose their shape and bang and clatter as they get it back. We are doing over seven knots so there is no chance of us stopping sailing! The solution to this is to use our pole to stop the Genoa from losing its shape. We did this a bit in the Biscay and Atlantic but struggled getting the Genoa sheet to work through our netting. I mention to Christian that we may take a few attempts to get this right but miraculously I choose the right loop in the brat nets to thread the sheet through and it is barely pulled at all when the sail is set. Immediately there is an acceleration as the sail sets well and stays there.

Over time the wind starts to bare to the north slightly which matches a prediction maria has been able to get from the Italian radio. We keep turning a little south to keep our goose wing working but at around lunchtime it is time to turn back to our track with the sails on the starboard side. For protection and because of the swell we have kept the pole out with preventers on both the pole and boom which should stop any risk to the rig. We have made good time during the day with the wind’s assistance.

Maria prepares a seafood pasta for dinner with the last of the bread she made the other day. As always it is delicious although a still very tired Maria keeps asking if it is ok. We are then into our fifth day at sea and our last night before getting to Sicily for refuelling. For most of the previous four days we have had shipping around us as we beat a well trodden path from the Gibraltar straights into the heart of the Mediterranean. We are now veering off towards Sicily when most traffic is heading further south. The night is incredibly quiet because of this with highlights being ships coming within five miles of us. However, by dawn we are fifty miles away from Sicily and we can start to see the fishing fleet in the distance. It looks like we will get all our “fun” in one big hit! Actually, it isn’t as bad as it looks and the wind is non existent. We are now beginning to think about getting into Marsala and giving Mariadz a very welcome long drink.

On the approach to Marsala, I speak to the man running the fuel pontoon and it sounds like he will be at lunch when we arrive. No problem, we will wait on the pontoon for him to finish. That sounds fine and we finalise the approach passing a French boat as we enter the harbour.

Maria is behind the wheel and the area for the fuel pontoon looks really tight as Maria goes into that channel. Then there is a man frantically waving at us. He wants us to one in stern to using lazy lines and has brought the fuel line all the way down the pontoon. Maria is able to stop Mariadz before she is too committed and comes back to the pontoon bringing her in to the pontoon expertly. We get her tied off and the refuelling can begin.

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