Oh, So Familiar!

If you have a weather window, you’d be wise to use it. That was our overarching motto as we took up our dock lines and headed out of the marina in Gaeta to begin our 2019 summer adventure. We had a moderate wind that would help us on our southbound route, and we jumped at the chance to get off the dock. We also had the advantage for the next few days to sail in familiar waters. Familiarity. It’s a catch 22 of sorts to return to where you have previously been. On the one hand, you know where to go, where to anchor, where to find groceries and what sights to see ashore. You can drop the hook with aplomb knowing you were here before and the holding is good. You don’t waste time wandering like a gypsy ashore with your bags of garbage trying to find a rubbish bin while trying to look cool and nonchalant around your high-fashion Italian peers. But then again, you’re not seeing anything new, which limits how much ‘adventure’ you’re truly having. However to start off the season, Karen and I needed the comfort of a little familiarity.

With an early start and favorable winds, we considered the many options that were a day’s sail from Gaeta. The Pontine Islands, with their huge multicolored cliffs, were tempting but would put us a little too far west. There was the small fishing hamlet at Ventotene which we had sailed by last summer but did not stop at, however the entrance seemed tricky and shallow. We opted for the longest option – 35 miles – to Ischia. We were quite familiar with Ischia from last summer, having visited all but the west side of the island, which is where there were rumored to be thermal baths. Soaking in warm water seemed like the perfect gift to ourselves for getting Sea Rose launched.

As the fortress of Gaeta faded into the distance, we motored south, enjoying our first day underway, not minding the lack of wind for sailing. We would have plenty of good sailing days this summer, we told ourselves. With fading light, we arrived at the western Ischia town of Fario, ready to drop the hook, but the anchoring options were limited. A gaggle of teenagers on the breakwater, waving enthusiastically to us, were the only signs of life. The thermal baths would have to wait for another time. We opted to push on around to the south side of the island to the zone of the familiar, this time the harbor of St Angelo. We were just here in early October with our friends Connor and Andree, showing up to a surprise celebration of the Saint and his earthly followers toting enough fireworks to be seen from outer space. On this day, it was gray and windy and cold. So cold that we ran the diesel heater and ate our dinner down below, and prepared extra blankets on our berth to stay warm. If we were sailing in northern Europe, we would expect this. But here in the Med, it was a novelty and kind of fun. We knew the days would come soon enough where we’d be sleeping in minimal clothing in a hot, sweaty bunk with fans running all night long.

Gray and not-to-familiar Fario, on the west coast of Ischia

In the morning, after a cozy night’s sleep, we were awakened by the rock and roll of waves entering the harbor. Strong winds were predicted out of the east and it was time to find better protection. We found it on the west side of Procida, a little cove with high walls but apparently not worthy for a name. If only we were early explorers, we could give this cove a name of our own and place it on the map for an eternity of future visitors. Instead, we regaled in the peaceful flat water, while just outside the entrance, a tempest of white caps was brewing. Little did we know at the time, but another tempest was forming. Dark clouds skudded across the sky overhead. In that rapidity that only thunderstorms can muster, we were soon inundated. Heavy rain fell immediately, surrounding us with mini waterfalls as the water found its way off the bimini. Waterfalls were developing on shore too, as the runoff careened down the road to the beach, cascading over a collection of stairs before plummeting to the beach and washing the surrounding sand out into the water. I felt sorry for the owner of the little beach bar, who would arrive soon enough to find his little summer business in need of digging out, even before the season started.

Our second deluge in one week, as we anchored off of Procida

But the real tempest was the bubbling up in the middle of the cove of a large brown circle of muck.  Little did we know at the time that a village storm drain ran out under the water and ended just a boat length away from us. All the detritus from the weeks or months since the streets were last cleaned was now rising up and spreading out towards us like a giant amoeba. We were going to be swallowed up by the muddy brown dirt of Ischia, less than a week from when our fiberglass hull had been meticulously polished to a mirror finish by the fine folks at Base Nautica Flavio Gioia. Yuck! And then the smell arrived. Why is it that floods have to bring back the stuff that we thought we had flushed down the toilet and sent on its merry way to an unknown oblivion? All of sudden, we had been teleported to the ‘oblivion’. I had to retreat below to do a mind-over-matter thought experiment. Tempests come in many forms and this was a new one for me!

By the next morning, it was like the day after Burning Man – you could see no evidence of the previous insurrections. We launched the dinghy and landed at the quiet, sandy beach for a chance to stretch our legs. We had not been off the boat since Gaeta. How impressively clean the streets were! We put our legs to work climbing the narrow streets and finding dirt paths through citrus orchards that gave us the heart health we needed after so many days onboard and at the marina. We had all of the beautiful vistas that one would experience later in the summer, but without the tourists, buses, and knick-knack souvenir stores. It’s no surprise that Spring comes here much earlier than in New England and other northern geographies. Yet what drives tourism here and at home appears to be the same – the kid’s school schedule. Things don’t really start to get busy here until late June, and is definitely busy in July and August. Visiting Procida as we were in mid-May, we had fine weather but few others to have to jostle with on the streets. If you are not bounded by school schedules, clearly this was the time of year to visit!

The lemon groves on Ischia were plentiful

Back on the boat, and with a moderate, post-storm forecast in the mix, we sailed the short distance back across to Ischia, to the familiar harbor in the lee of the Castello Aragonese, where we had many fond memories with our guests last summer. We knew right where to set the anchor, where to land the dinghy and which stores were the best for produce. But this time, we also took a new walk to the neighboring town of Porto d’Ischia, where you wouldn’t know it was not the height of summer. Here, ferries from the mainland arrived, and sailors and land travelers were milling around providing plenty of commerce for the cafes and hotels. We felt it was our duty to fit in, so we slipped into cushy chairs at an outdoor cafe overlooking this perfectly round harbor, quenched by the setting sun in the distance. A liter of chilled house white wine was all it took to be refreshed after our second long walk of the day. It was no longer necessary for us to order a Cakebread chardonnay, or Shafer Cab. We were unabashedly content with what the house was pouring. Would you care what wine you were drinking when you’re sitting dockside at an old Italian harbor at sunset?

The Castello Aragonese, with a rising moon

Going for a run the next morning to burn off the excesses of the previous day, I was overcome as much by the hilly terrain as I was the diesel exhaust of the delivery trucks. And, back on the boat, my normal routine of a cooling dip after running was interrupted by countless jellyfish, like so much anti-aircraft flak hoping to strike me at random. Was this how swimming was going to be this summer? I could hardly remember a single jellyfish from last summer. The water was still very cold. My only hope was that these vile creatures would scatter when the weather warmed.

Our playful days in familiar waters were coming to an end, as we prepared to sail to Sorrento to pickup our first guests of the summer. We had done the sail down from Procida several times and this day was no different. Oh, except there was no wind! We motored for a couple of hours, enjoying the views of nearby Vesuvius, Capri and Ischia. Soon enough, we were approaching Sorrento, another port we were intimately familiar with. Last summer, Sorrento had been a crossroads of sorts for meeting many of our crew. And what a perfect Italian port. Here you have the majestic cliffs that run the boundary line between sea and city. Once you climb (or pay a euro to take the elevator) to the cliff top, you are greeted by a cacophony of cars, scooters, and pedestrians seeking out restaurants, bars and trendy shops. We headed down a narrow pedestrian-only alley to my favorite leather shop, finding new items I had somehow overlooked the last time we visited. I felt I was well-behaved though. There were some awfully nice leather attaches and travel bags, the kind that flex like a well broken in baseball glove but with fancy Italian flare. I had long ago stopped carrying such accoutrements to the office, opting instead for a more utilitarian backpack. And without an office visit in the last two years, I’m sure Karen would see right through my cost/benefit analysis!

The main port of Sorrento, as viewed from the high plateau of the city

We ambled through the evening street scene that only Sorrento can create before dinghying back to Sea Rose for barbecued hamburgers and eggplant, and a classic setting sun over the peaks of Capri. Our re-introduction to life onboard was complete and we were ready for our friends Mary and Dave to board the next day. We would be bidding adieu to the familiar and entering the world of the unknown, that is, as much as you can call anything on this earth today unknown. Still, in the spirit of Magellan, we set forth with earnest anticipation!

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