Sailing around live volcanoes could be perceived by some as dangerous. But now we had to really thread the needle. Our next leg would take us around the bottom of the ‘boot’ of Italy and across the Adriatic Sea to Montenegro. If you look at a map, you won’t see any volcanoes on this route, but it is still considered dangerous. The prevailing winds blow out of the south east, directly on to the coast, and there are few harbors safe enough for protection. In sailor parlance, this is called a ‘lee’ shore, and no one likes to take that kind of risk. This all means that we would have to make the passage quickly, and if we found a good weather window, we’d have to jump on it.
We said goodbye to our friends Mary and Dave at Milazzo, on the northern coast of Sicily, and after a hasty run to the laundromat and grocery store, we were off. Under sunny skies and a mild breeze, we pointed our bow to Challenge #1 – the Messina Straits. This is the narrow band of water that separates Sicily from mainland Italy. It is used by big cargo ships and cruise liners and if you successfully avoid them, you also have strong currents to contend with, along with their evil step-sister, the whirlpool. This area is steeped in history, as well as in the prose of Homer. At that time of his writing, the two harbors at the entrance, Scilla and Charybdis, would strike fear in seamen. In Homer’s tale, Circe warned Odysseus about Scilla, nicknamed ‘the Render’, and Charybdis, ‘the sucker-down’. Scilla was a cave-dweller with six long necks with gruesome heads that would pluck sailors out of the straits. Charybdis was the inanimate giant whirlpool, large enough to swallow whole ships. Whether or not you believe this prose, what is known for sure is that an earthquake in 1783 changed the underwater topography enough to mellow the effects of whirlpools (and maybe collapsed the cave were Scilla slept).
We entered the straits with a slightly favorable current, sending us south with lovely rapidity. The whirlpools we saw were more of a minor nuisance and a novelty than something to be truly feared. Like many congested bodies of water in Europe, the Messina Straits has a traffic control center that communicates on a designated VHF channel. Sometimes you need to check in ahead of time to get permission to pass. Other times, you just monitor their channel and respond to calls as needed. We choose the later strategy and stayed out of the designated shipping lanes by hugging the shoreline. Halfway down the straits, you are permitted to cross the straits to the other side – indeed car ferries are furiously shuttling busy landlubbers across this section, and they deserve a wide berth. But we needed to get to the eastern shore eventually and say goodbye to Sicily if we were going to make it around the boot, so we made a 90 degree turn and sped across the gap. We were pleasantly surprised to be greeted on the Italian mainland side with a brisk wind. Raising sails, we sailed down the shore at a healthy rate, as we rode the last wisps of the favorable current. To our west rose majestic Mt Etna, the temperamental older parent to the other active volcanoes we had observed in Italy. Unlike Stromboli, which is a ‘Little Engine That Could’ version, steadily releasing lava in almost charming baby eruptions every 20-30 minutes, Mt Etna has no interest in charm. Every couple of years, and at other times every year, it throws an eruption that would make the Little Engine That Could cower and tremble in fear. And put fear in grown adults. At one point last year, we were close to inking a contract to store Sea Rose in Catania for the winter, just down the long slope from Mt Etna. But wiser forces prevailed when we learned how temperamental the beast really was.
Distracted as we were with the sun setting over Mt Etna, we had to come up with a plan for the night. The toe of Italy was just an hour downwind from us, and try as we might, nothing jumped out as a great anchorage spot for the night. About the best we could do was drop the hook along the shore where the Messina Straits widens to the south, watching the big ship traffic pass to and fro, all the while hoping their wake wouldn’t roll us nor the wind would force us on to the exposed shore. Lucky for us, we both had the same thought, with Karen the first to speak up. We would press on overnight. Normally, an overnight passage is something we plan for at least a day ahead, after examining the weather and anchorage options closely. But we seemed to toss that logical approach out the porthole, perhaps from being entranced by the sunset over Sicily, the calming conditions, and the plain reality that we both wanted to get this boot thing over as soon as possible. We had plenty of food and diesel, we were well rested, and a quick check of the weather showed barely a breath of wind throughout the night. To put the icing on the cake, we had a nearly full moon rising late at night, giving us confidence to see better during the overnight watches. Navigating at night always raises the hair on the back of my neck. If you can sail, the risks are a little less. If you have to motor, like we would, you run the chance of snaring a fish buoy, of which there are just enough randomly placed in these waters to cause a concern. But with the moon up, there’s just enough reflection on the water to find these time bombs and steer around them.
So off we went into the inky night until the moon rose. We had an oh-so-brief dinner and then Karen took the first three hour watch while I went down to sleep. I was up again at 10pm to take over. We had purposely taken a wide turn around the toe, in deeper water, to minimize the fish buoy risk. In addition, we relied on our radar and AIS to identify the many cargo ships coming and going from the Straits, as well as many smaller fishing boats. I can’t imagine the home life of these fisherman, out late every night to harvest a living from the sea, walking back through the front door at dawn smelling like raw fish bait. “Hi, honey, I’m home… ready for more practice on how to make babies?!”
Many of the fishing boats chose not to use AIS, which left us trying to track their location, course and speed on the radar. They could have provided all of this safety data to their fellow mariners, with a simple AIS transmitter at a pittance of cost compared to what they spend on other boat maintenance, but I had a feeling this was more of a decision to not let their competitors know about their favorite spots. Tracking them on radar was a bit like watching an old dog with Alzheimers. They’d stop for long periods of time, hesitate, turn, seeming to smell something better, stop again, then turn in the opposite direction. Did someone call my name? Which way to get home? The only benefit is that they’d move slowly while they were trolling, rarely more than 2 knots. Just before my watch ended, a distinctively different radar target appeared. It was moving much faster than the other fishing boats, running parallel to the shore in the opposite direction. I could only make out a part of its profile, as it blanked out the few lights on shore as it passed by in the distance. I can understand the fisherman not turning on AIS, but most large powerboats use AIS. Why not this one? A part of me wondered if this could be the Guardia Finanza, Italy’s maritime arm that deals with illegal drug trade and immigration. We already had our daytime pow-wow with them back in Sardinia, as they confiscated our passports for a nervous 30 minutes before they wished us well and took off at full throttle towards another unsuspecting boat. When I was a kid, policemen were not unlike fireman and bulldozer operators. They’d come to your classroom, with everyone sitting down cross-legged in a nice perfect circle to hear them talk about their job. Us kids, of course, understood very little other than the cool uniforms they got to wear, and to hear Johnny ask that same stupid question every time, “Hey, officer, have you ever fired your pistol?” But as an adult, the uncomfortable reality comes forth, with its fuzzy boundary and imperfect truth. It started with the ‘Question Authority’ stickers in our high school. In college, campus police harangued me for playing frisbee on the football field. Really? Frisbee? Sadly, I’ve lost part of my California beach boy naiveté. In those carefree beach days, my friends and I nicknamed the police ‘the fuzz’, a mild version of what I’m sure other teenagers came up with. Now, I treat any police presence with suspicion, and give them no reason to notice me. That much power in one person, carrying weapons designed to kill, scares the daylights out of me.
But I digress. It was 1 am and time to hand over the watch to Karen, as we motored on in the glassy calm. I had a hard time getting to sleep, and was still awake in the bunk just before my watch started at 4 am, when I saw a beam of light sweep across the porthole and shine briefly into our berth. This was followed immediately by a carnal yell from Karen, “Tom, you need to get up here NOW!” OK, this can’t be good. I flew out the bunk and charged up to the cockpit to find a spotlight pointed at us, bright enough to shine to the heavens. There was a deep, guttural drone of diesel engines behind it, and whatever this thing was, it was charging directly at our stern at high speed. Karen was screaming. What do we do? Who is this? They are going to ram us any moment now. The light was so bright, we couldn’t see anything behind it. We could only hear the roar of its loud engines . With no ability to judge distances, it seemed like any second they would strike our hull and sink us. It was all over the news that this stretch of water was filled with immigrant boats coming up from North Africa. Were we being boarded and attacked? Karen started yelling at them again, waving the VHF in her hand to try to get them on the radio. They started pacing us, with their bow just off our stern, close enough it seemed to reach out and make contact. But they said nothing. My heart was pounding out of my chest; I was definitely in fight or flight mode. The way they were hovering at our stern, stunning us with their spotlight, just escalated the fear. If you are going to attack us, make your move and let’s get on with it – but beware, we won’t go down easily. Then, suddenly, the spotlight was extinguished, they turned away, and roared off in the opposite direction. As they turned, I could faintly read out the lettering on their hull, ‘Guardia Finanza’. We were pissed. What kind of way is this to treat another boater on the water? And to not announce yourself, in waters that are known to have illegal immigrant traffic? And what about the risk of collision? It was a good thing we didn’t have a firearm onboard – I might have had reason to pull it out to defend us. The way the whole event went down, with them charging up our stern without AIS, lighting us up so we couldn’t see anything, taking off without a word from their loudspeaker, this was clearly purposeful intimidation. I can understand the importance of surprise if you think you might have found a drug-runner or boat load of illegal immigrants, but really. Would either of those groups being operating a boat with AIS, a sailboat nonetheless, with a top speed not much over a light jog, navigated by an over-50 year old husband and wife? Once all of this reality kicked in, you’d think they would come on the loudspeaker to explain themselves. Pissed. Livid. Feeling abused. This was not helping quell my ‘Question Authority’ stance.
Understandably, Karen had a very hard time slowing down and getting to sleep on her off watch. I at least had the benefit of trying to process it while on watch. I posted a question to a Med Sailing Facebook group I belonged to, and my phone lit up with replies immediately. Yes, Guardia Finanza sightings were very common on this southern Italy coast, and, yes, the way they handled it was very irresponsible. Being the internet, I also got the full gamut of recommendations. I should carry a weapon. I should have given them the bird. They were just doing their job, get over it. It’s just a reality of the political situation in Europe. I did learn that many other boaters had experienced the same thing, but with a little more civility and communication. I could only hope that our experience was the exception, an errant captain wanting to do one more scare for his crew before they turned in for the night. A contorted scene from Monsters Inc kept coming to my sleep-deprived mind, with Sullly dressed in Guardia Finanza uniform, egged on by his side-kick Wazowski. “Come on, Sully, scare them good… we need to set a new record!”
A large orange blob started appearing on the horizon, the early signs of the full moon that was going to help us on our final hours of night watch. Up ahead, in the distance was another small boat stopped and not on AIS. Unlike the other fishing boats, though, this one showed no signs of a twitchy Alzheimer’s dog. They didn’t move an inch. I needed the binoculars to see them in the low light of pre-dawn, but sure enough, the gray hull with the words ‘Guardia Finanza’ were unmistakable. Could this be the Monsters Inc version of Randall, disappointed he didn’t get his chance to throw down his meanest scare?!
With daybreak, we switched to two hour watches, still motoring along in the flat calm water, trying to chill our nerves from the night before, but feeling blessed to not have heavy winds on a lee shore. The shore line here is low-lying and pretty featureless, apart from a few wind farms that would be, on most normal days, high energy producers. We rounded the point at Capo Colenne, halfway along the bottom of the boot, and headed northwest to the harbor of Crotone. This town was one of the few that had a protected marina, and an anchorage just outside for calm conditions, which is where we settled. On the words of a fellow boater, we were told to expect a charming stop, with good shopping and a daily farmers market. I had my doubts though. What stared back at us from the shore were only 5 storey high concrete apartment buildings, many of which were beyond their life expectancy. Exploring on land, we found the ruins of a large castello with impressively high stone walls cutting through the otherwise cross-hatch street plan. Try as we might, we couldn’t find an entrance to the castle, nor even a simple historical marker. The graffiti was telling enough, as were the many men loitering in the streets, giving us reason to pickup the pace and not stick out as tourists. Discovering the farmers market, only to realize it was closed, continued to sour our taste until a narrow alley between buildings dropped us into the main shopping district. I felt like I was walking out from behind the set onto a Hollywood movie stage. Here, wide sidewalks brimmed with cafes and swanky stores, visited by dashing young dating couples, and envied by stroller pushing parents. I remembered that this was Saturday night. Time to take the kids out for gelatos, so that Mom and Dad can get some fresh air. We wound our way back to the waterfront, finding some diamonds in the rough, as we settled into a street side cafe in the shadows of the concrete jungle. We could have done well with any of the cafes, they were all the same. Inexpensive but delightful house wine by the liter, with a setup of olives, nuts, and pencil thin crackers. And out beyond the honking, slow moving cars on the seaside boulevard was our baby Sea Rose, bobbing gently in the offshore breeze. I could stay here for hours. And we did! This was clearly a local, gritty town, shedding it’s weekday blemishes for a Saturday night to remember. Large groups of Italians would push tables together and sit to enjoy a beverage and a smoke, laughing about jokes we would never understand. They would leave, and others would fill in, eager to grab an empty table with a view. Karen and I were fine with our table in the back, close enough for olfactory tingle as entrees swept by us from the kitchen. No one seemed to stay long. Perhaps they found the 6 euro per liter house white too rich for their tastes. We did our best to sip slowly but with so much people watching, I had to keep pace. One young couple on a high-top next to us made my mind race with imaginary storylines. Clearly on a date, they nervously fidgeted until their order of two Cokes arrived. I marveled at how, here in Italy and elsewhere in Europe, they still serve Coke in the traditional curvaceous Coca-Cola glass bottles, little miniature Euro-style bottles. Nowhere but the most boutique diner would you find a single serving Coca-Cola bottle in the U.S. Long ago, sadly, we took a left turn and drowned our youth with Big Gulp sized fountain drinks, over-served as they are with too much ice. Here was a scene unfolding before me right out of the 50’s, with pony-tailed, red-lipsticked girl, leaning over the table flirtatiously sipping her Coca-Cola, while lucky boy sees his odds of getting a kiss tonight improving by the minute. I just about fell out of my chair when I saw french fries and hamburgers deposited in front of them by their waiter. Those retired corporate ad agents were on to something with the slogan “Have a Coke and a Smile!”
The effects of too much house wine aside, we were up at 5am to cross the Golfo di Taranto, the big open bay that leads to the stiletto heel of the boot, and the next safe haven of Santa Maria di Leuca. At a distance of 70 miles, we could make it before nightfall if we got a head start. A light rain was falling under gray skies as I took over the watch and started recording a video of our Crotone experience. Wait, what is that boat doing on the camera display? I turned around to see a light gray powerboat up on a plane, throwing white water in large arcs to each side as it appeared to set its course to directly intersect us. This can’t be, could it? As it got closely, it was hard to deny. Here before us once again was the Guardia Finanza. What could they want with us now? We were just 3 miles out of the harbor from which they had come as well. Just another 50+ year old couple, on a slow sailboat, transmitting AIS – harmless I can assure you. Yet they kept coming. At least we had the benefit of daylight to identify them. As they approached our stern, they slowed down to match our speed. Up close, these are intimidating vessels – sleek in profile, with heavy dark glass and feisty, black-soot-belching diesels wanting to tear up the water in pursuit of the bad guys. To my surprise, the captain slid his side window open and greeted me with a ‘Hello’. And, ‘Where are you going?’ This was not a gruff ‘where are you going’, but a more gentile ‘where are you going’ that a curious old man might ask you on the train platform or a park bench. I was caught off guard and stumbled to answer. He helped me by prompting, “Greece?”. I found my linguistic stride and answered, “No, we are headed to Santa Maria di Leuca, then on to Montenegro.” He seemed to delight in this news, for what reason I could not decipher. He continued to throw me off guard with the comment, “Beautiful boat. I hope you have a nice trip”, wrapping up the odd dialog with a thumbs up and the throttle down as they curved away back to base. If our previous night’s experience led me to order up a fresh box of Question Authority buttons, this one made me want to hug the next unsuspecting law enforcement officer I found. I get it. I know they need to guard their coast line, and I know that our own U.S. Coast Guard has the same mission, and it is reassuring to see this boat crew do their job in a respectful way that minimizes risk to other boaters.
The crossing to Santa Maria di Leuca was pleasantly absent of drama, with the last hour producing enough wind for us to sail into the harbor. Here at the pointy end of the heel sits the Porto Turistico di Leuca marina, where we arranged for dockage and swiftly med moored Sea Rose to their outer pontoon. The ample space at the marina quickly filled up with other boat arrivals. Had they seen the same forecast? The seas on the outside of the tall concrete breakwater were already stirring up chaos. For the next three days, strong, prevailing winds out of the South were on the agenda. These were the exact winds we had wanted to avoid on this huge stretch of lee shore. We had timed it right and were safely ensconced in our slip, with only a light surge of water and creaking of the old metal dock sections to remind us of the worsening weather outside. We were effectively done with our ‘boot’ crossing. This point of land marked the crossroads of the Ionian and Adriatic seas. Once the weather passed, we would turn north up the Adriatic to more protected waters.
Sometimes, it is nice to have the luxury of a marina. You can walk on and off the boat with ease, instead of coordinating dinghy schedules. Practical concerns such as trash removal, boat washing and people washing are infinitely easier. And knowing the boat was safe in the bad weather allowed us to take a breath mentally. As we walked the waterfront, it was clear the contrast of this town versus Crotone. Gone were the concrete apartment buildings. In their place were expansive villas lining the bluffs over the harbor, apparently from the bygone days when this place was an aristocratic summer haven. Many of these villas appeared empty now. Were they owned by aristocratic descendants, too busy in their modern day lives to fit in a summer holiday in this beautiful windswept outpost of southern Italy?
After a long day on the water from Crotone, we were eager to get some shut eye, but the weather and our neighboring boats had other plans. As the wind increased, random annoying things started to rattle and bang outside. First, it was our boat, and I made several trips up on the deck to tie back halyards from slapping against the mast. But on both sides of us were similar noises. Think of the resonation of a metal baseball bat hitting a metal street lamp tower, with the same one second rhythm, all night long. That’s what a halyard sounds like against a mast in a stiff breeze. I could do nothing about the one vacant boat next to us; but for the other, I finally marched over at 5 am and pounded on their hull from the dock. One of the two men on board came up in skivvies looking dazed and confused. I was frankly shocked that there was anyone on board. How they could have slept inside what could only be described as a mammoth sized snare drum, I have no idea. After he came to his wits and understood what I was asking, he got busy tying his halyards off too. In the morning, I was trying not to make eye contact, but he broke the silence by gifting us a bottle of white wine made by a family member. Being already weighed down by plenty of Italian wine, I tried to refuse, but he would have none of it. It was a kind gesture and I wondered sheepishly if I had been too harsh in my 5 am outburst.
We met other locals on the dock under better circumstances. A couple strolled past and stopped when they saw our Boston home port. The wife had grown up just outside Boston, and had a summer place on Lake Winnipesaukee. You hear a surprising amount of English in Italy, but often it is one European talking to another, with English being their only common language. But when an American, or more specifically, a Bostonian, comes by to say hello, their English places them immediately. There is no doubt. Virginia was chatty and inquisitive, and we all reveled in how small the world is. Her husband Cosimo grew up in the outskirts of Santa Maria di Leuca, before moving to Switzerland. They come back each summer to his roots to relax on holiday. When we showed curiosity about the town and the sightseeing, they immediately insisted that we go to dinner with them the following evening. Great, we had a dinner date with a local! Karen and I try very hard to meet locals, but it is hard. We are surrounded by other boaters – tourists in their own right – and lacking as we are with linguistic skills, our interactions are typically limited to wait staff and shop keepers.
We filled out the rest of the time waiting out the storm with a hike to a steep promontory above the town. To get to these heights, one climbs the deteriorating stones of what is colloquially called ‘Mussolini’s Steps’, although any reference to him has been etched out of the stone markers. The story goes that he wanted these steps, and the cascading waterfall between them, now in disrepair, to be an iconic gateway to Italy. Although this spot at the heel is not the most southern point of Italy, it does feel like the end of the earth, as you gaze from the promontory into an endless blue sea. As a reminder of how exposed this southern outpost is, the marina contains several derelict boats used by North African migrants. What I had seen in recent new stories – super-sized rubber dinghies – were not the case here. Instead, there was a 30 ft sailboat, with strands of torn sail still blowing in the breeze, and a beat up hull and interior. An old ChrisCraft style wooden powerboat, with loose planks and bashed-in holes in the deck, stood forlornly next to the sailboat. Worst of all, next up was the gut wrenching picture of two wooden masts sticking up from the water, with dock lines descending the depths to a sunken wooden craft, with pieces of sunken deck and hull ebbing in and out with the harbor surge. I always thought something was wrong with me to feel sick to my stomach when finding a ship wreck. Little did I know that Karen felt the same way. Being mariners, knowing that our boats are artificially being suspended on top of the water, where any bad decision or dumb luck could put us and our craft to the bottom, coming face-to-face with a wreck is startling. What stories would these boats tell if only they could speak? What plight and suffering did their migrant passengers face? How much did the pay to get here and where are they now? Did they regret the decision to leave their homeland and their families?
At dinner, Virginia and Cosimo filled in some gaps for us, confirming that the migrant boats had been seized by the infamous Guardia Finanza. Many more boats on that side of the marina were seizures, waiting out their life sentences at the dock, sinking if they must, because the Guardia Finanza could not legally sell or dispose of them. On a more uplifting note, Cosimo took us on a narrated drive around town, followed by a trip inland to Castrignano del Capo where he grew up, a compact collection of narrow streets, with a single village square and a few restaurants. We felt like long lost American relatives as he paraded us into his favorite restaurant, with a table reserved for the four of us, and chilled wine at the ready. I wondered to myself how many questions we could get away with asking before becoming annoying, so starved were we for local knowledge. We treaded lightly on politics, but fired away in all other directions. If my Question Authority bearings were wavering, so too were my never-talk-to-strangers fear. On this night, we learned to trust in one’s instinct. When that involved jumping in a car in a foreign land to have dinner with someone you just met, go for it.
With our departure from Leuca, and Italy in general, imminent the next day, we needed to clear out with the Guardia Costeria. If we had been EU citizens, we could travel freely in and out of Italy, but being from the USA, we had been required to obtain a ‘Constituto’ document when we first arrived in Italy last year, while visiting the La Madalena islands in Sardinia. The Constituto must be turned in at your departure. The only problem was the lack of officialdom in this little outpost. We did eventually find a Guardia Costeria office, who took our Constituto after a bit of discussion behind the counter about who we were. I suspect they don’t see a lot of non-EU boats here. After a few minutes, it was decided that our boat name and particulars should be recorded, by hand, in a large ledger that I suspected listed all of the vessel arrivals. This was all repeated moments later, by hand, in another large ledger of vessel departures. We had entered and left the harbor. But we still needed our passports stamped out of Italy, in order to stop the Shengen clock, a restriction on how long we could stay in EU countries. We would run close to exceeding the Shengen time limit if we didn’t officially exit Italy soon. For passport control, it was necessary to meet with the Policizia, the Italian local police force. And where might we find them, I inquired at the marina office. As it turns out, the closest office was in Lecce, over two hours drive away. Yikes! The good news is that they travel, and we made arrangements to meet them at 10 am the next morning at the marina office, right before we would shove off. Sure enough, two men showed up in the tiniest police car that could possibly hold two people, looking very official with their crisp uniforms and heavy briefcases. Oh no, I could feel my Question Authority radar booting up. There was one older man and one younger. It was clear the older man ran the show, with the younger one as his aid, and thankfully capable of limited English, but I was cautious not to speak until spoken too, and not to draw unnecessary attention and possible further questioning. Karen and I sat formally in our chairs, backs straight like we had been taught in grade school, alert and aware but careful not to stare too long in one direction for fear a government secret code would fall out of a briefcase and be seen by civilians, causing us to be whisked away to a hard labor camp. And so we waited. Waited for the older man to setup his equipment, which consisted of an old laptop as thick as an old phone book, tethered to a smaller machine that appeared to be used as a scanner. We waited patiently, as he booted up his devices, wiggled cables, furrowing his brow. Something wasn’t working right and I could only guess that some software glitch or password issue was preventing him from getting his techno-gadgetry to work correctly, something we could all relate to. He finally looked up from his computer screen and pointed to Karen’s large cup of coffee brought from the boat and said ‘Grande Americano’ with a little smirk. When we realized the humor coming forth, all four of us laughed, poking fun at American’s oversized coffee infatuation versus the European pinky-raising espresso shots. He had broken the ice and we all relaxed as a consequence. Phone calls were made back to the home office with our passport details and he successfully cleared us out without all the fancy, temperamental gadgetry. We were bid farewell and after a round of handshakes, we had the green light to leave Italy.
Apart from being at home for the winter, we had been in Italy since July of last year. Italy commands a large chunk of the Mediterranean coastline with impressive variety – from isolated coves along eastern Sardinia, to charming seaside hamlets of Cinque Terre, to the ultra swank Almafi coast region. But it was time to leave the tasty wood-fired pizza and dazzling gelato flavors behind and strike out for new territory. Arrivederci, Italia! Hello, Montenegro!