In 1698 and while employed by the Medici family in Florence Italy, musical instrument technician and builder Bartolomeo Cristofori created the precursor to today’s piano. What made the instrument revolutionary—compared to the other popular keyboard instruments of the time (the clavichord, harpsichord, and pipe organ)—is that the musician could control the volume of each note played by how hard he or she struck the note’s key on the keyboard. Because of this innovation, Cristofori dubbed his invention the “fortepiano” (also sometimes called the “pianoforte”)—“forte” being Italian for strong or loud, and “piano” for soft. The instrument’s name was later abbreviated “piano.”
I state the above for two reasons. First, the title of our previous post was Piano Piano and I wrote it the morning we embarked from Santa Teresa di Gallura, Sardinia bound for Gaeta, mainland Italy—a 200 nautical mile sail through the Strait of Bonifacio and across the Central Tyrrhenian Sea. Second, because the passage itself was an epic “fortepiano” experience. As I reread the Piano Piano post in preparation to write this post, my pre-passage hubris made me chuckle: “I think we’ve started to learn a thing or two about Mediterranean weather and sailing….” Yes, when we departed I knew it was going to be a bit windy and challenging, but—once again—I underestimated Poseidon’s and the Mediterranean’s ability to surprise me.
Rhett and I had been impressed with the marina at Santa Teresa and had talked to some other sailors who had decided to winter their boats there. After I downloaded and analyzed our final set of weather forecasts, and told Rhett that we were a “go” to depart, she said half-jokingly, “Good, if we had had another gale warning and had to delay yet again, I was going to suggest that we just winter here.” In retrospect, it’s funny how the cascading effects of a particular event can change the course of our lives.
The marina at Santa Teresa is in a long and deep cala (cove) with steep hills surrounding it. As such, most of the wind is blocked in the cala and the remaining wind swirls from all directions. Bottom-line, from inside the marina it’s impossible to tell what the wind on “the outside” (the Strait of Bonifacio) is actually doing. As we loosed our mornings and snaked Hazel northward through the narrow cala, and the Strait of Bonifacio came into view in the gray, early morning light, it was clear that we were going to be in for a spirited ride. Even with the sun barely above the horizon, we could see the white-capped waves whipping from west to east—at least, and as predicted, we’d have the wind behind us. With Rhett at the helm and as we cleared the rocks at the mouth of the cala, I hoisted Hazel’s small staysail to get us going. As I did, I told Rhett that once we got out in the strait and had a better feel for the wind, we’d adjust our sail plan accordingly. Little did I know that we’d be sailing under just the staysail for the next 20 hours!
Rhett and I have a little tradition at the beginning of a sail; after we’ve motored out of the marina or anchorage and right before we shut down Ox (Hazel’s auxiliary engine) and start sailing, the person who is about to pull Ox’s “stop” knob that chokes his diesel supply, cheerily calls out, “Get ready for the best sound of the day!” As Ox’s iron machinations cease, we’re flooded with the sound of wind and sea and sails and birds—it’s pure magic. This day it was my turn and with Rhett at the wheel, I cried out the salutation. Ox’s diesel rumble and chatter faded away and, with a whoosh, we were off and sailing fast with the morning sun in our eyes.
It was brilliantly clear and we sailed east about a mile north of Sardinia and six miles south of Corsica. We were doing 6+ knots and headed for a cluster of small but spectacular islands off northeastern Sardinia at a range of eight miles. While, we’re thrilled when we make 6 knots with all her sails up and pulling, I was surprised to be going this fast under the tiny staysail alone. I looked at the anemometer readout and saw it ranging in the low 20 knots of apparent wind. Adding our boat speed onto that and we were talking about a true wind in the upper 20s—about 10 knots higher that I had anticipated for this time of the day. Oh well, I thought, We’re in it and we’re committed. I made the easy decision to not change our sail plan and continue under just the staysail. Hoisting more would only stress the old girl and only give us a marginal increase in speed.
As we bubbled along and got fenders stowed and Hazel’s self-steering windvane rigged, it felt good to get our sealegs under us and settle in. I’d heard tales about the Strait of Bonifacio and how the wind can funnel between the French and Italian landmasses, and become a fury in a hurry. While I was hoping to transit the notorious strait in a gentle 10-15 knot breeze, the sea state was manageable and didn’t seem to be building, even with the strong breeze off our stern.
Within the hour we were closing on Isola La Maddalena and the other small islands off northeastern Sardinia. Fortunately the passages between the rugged red granite islands were relatively wide and deep up to the shoreline, and we transited them without incident. As often seems to be the case with us, there were no other boats sailing on that breezy but sunny morning and we wondered aloud if we knew something everybody else didn’t know, or vice-versa (here’s a video of Hazel under staysail as we navigate the islands around Maddalena).
As we continued eastward with Sardinia and its surrounding islands receding in our stern wake, we got a respite from the sea because there was practically zero fetch. In nautical parlance, the “fetch” refers to the distance that wind blows over water before it reaches your position. Wind driven waves are caused by the friction of air moving across the water’s surface and the longer the fetch, the bigger the wind-driven waves will become (up until the friction of the wind on the water generating waves reaches equilibrium with the calming effects of water molecules against each other and gravity). As an aside, it’s also worth noting that newly formed waves (“young locals” you could say) are steep and choppy—they have shorter periods or wavelenghs, while waves generated long ago and far away (“elderly out-of-towners”) tend to be gently sloped with long wavelengths (swells).
Unfortunately, I knew that respite from the seas was going to be temporary and in another 10 miles or so, the wind (which had continued to strengthen) would have plenty of fetch to generate a nasty, short-period and steep, “local” sea. It was about 10:00 a.m. by that point and I told Rhett my hunch about the seas that we’d soon be experiencing and added I was going below deck to download the latest weather forecasts via satellite to see if they would reflect the wind that was now blowing hard in the lower 30 knot range.
It takes longer to download weather via satellite (offshore) than it does over cellular or wi-fi (inshore) so about 15 minutes later I was back on deck with the news. In the time I’d been below deck the wind and seas had built considerably and Hazel had taken some spray and whitewater over the transom from the following sea. Nothing serious (yet) but enough to get our attention. Both Rhett and Sunny were a bit wide eyed when I said, “So, what do you want first? The good news or the not so good news?” Rhett—the eternal optimist—elected to start with the good news (no surprises there). I replied earnestly, “Well, we have our health.” She stared at me deadpan. Humor is all about timing and perhaps my timing was off, or perhaps she was in no mood for humor that was borderline gallows humor. “And?” she asked. I confessed, “The not so good news is that a gale warning has just been released for the Western-Central Tyrrhenian Sea which is exactly where we are.” Rhett pondered this new development for just an instant and asked the good question, “What are our options?” My reply was honest but oxymoronic, “We only have one option, and that is to sail through it. It would be a nightmare to harden-up into the wind and beat back to Sardinia.” I piled on as much “other good news” as I could at that point, “At least we’re headed into the right direction and it’s behind us pushing us along. Every mile of easting we make is a mile closer to getting out of this thing.” As if on cue, an unusually big set of waves rumbled under Hazel’s stern. We both smiled, thinking the same thing, Maybe wintering Hazel in Sardinia wasn’t such a bad idea. Oh well, it was behind us now and we were charging eastward, the die had been cast.
The rest of our daylight hours were spent trading watch while the other tried to get some nervous napping below decks. Although we had a bit of blue sky to cheer our souls, we were also slaloming between thunderstorms that were rolling through and around a couple freighters also plying the gale-swept Tyrrhenian that day. Once or twice, we saw the anemometer reach into the high-30s (knots of apparent wind), adding our boat speed we were now dealing with wind in the low-40s—it was howling. Hazel handled it with aplomb and several times her speed over ground exceeded 10 knots—blazing fast for Hazel, particularly under solo staysail.
I lost count of the number of times that day that the sea appeared to be settling down, only to have our hopes dashed by an enormous set of waves appearing off our stern and bearing down on us. Along their crests, they’d alternate between rolling and breaking, and it was mesmerizing to watch and hope that the exact place and time one of them chose to break didn’t coincide with where Hazel happened to be (the still picture above doesn’t do justice to the sea, this video helps). The night before—our last night in Santa Teresa—we had made a big pot of chili in anticipation of some rough weather and being in no mood to cook at sea. It was a good thing because as the wind continued to rattle the rigging and the sun sank low in the west behind us, we were famished. I heated the chili and we savored steaming wide-mouthed thermoses of “hot and hot” chili while bundled in foul weather tops and bottoms, and sea boots. Hot temperature, and hot spices. Buttered Sardinian bread capped off, and mopped up, the feast! While the good food buoyed our spirits and it seemed like we were through their worst of the gale—night was approaching and the sea is always more intimidating in the dark.
As is our custom, Rhett took the First Watch after dinner while I tried to get some sleep since I’d then be “on” for the rest of the night. After 10 minutes below decks and snuggled in the pilot berth it became clear to me that I wouldn’t be able to sleep. It was less about Hazel’s movement and the roar of the water and howl of the wind, and more about it being a first night of a passage. I always have a tough time getting into a sleep rhythm on the first night of a passage—I’m too fresh, too worked up (even on a mild sailing night and this was anything but). Unable to sleep, I settled for a kind of horizontal meditation: focus on the breath in, the breath out. I tried to note when my mind wandered and then gently bring it back to the breath. In its drifting, my mind happened upon my recent blog post Is Heeling Healing? Through the chaos of the gale, I smiled a wry Buddha-like smile and snuggled deeper into my sleeping bag. As a captain and soulmate, I had been good to Rhett that day. The razor’s edge sailing conditions had actually made my emotional job easier. The day’s cup of real-life had been brimming, there had been no room for a sticky syrup of manufactured drama or foam of lingering resentment. At our current speed, it would be less than a day of sailing to Gaeta, Italy. If I could hold it together through that, our last passage of 2022 would go into the books as challenging but emotionally successful!
After an hour in that meditative state, I roused myself, dressed (this time with thermal underwear under my foulies) and clambered up the companionway and in a low and gravely voice called out, “What’s the watch report Ms. Hinesley?” It was my best attempt at a mock Ahab voice and a little humor to break the tension. Rhett smiled meekly enjoying the humor this time, “It’s like before, maybe a little better. Every time I think the sea is relaxing, some big ones come through and we take a bit of water in the cockpit.”
Both Rhett and rear admiral Sunny were happy to be relieved of the watch and headed below deck, and I settled in the cockpit and marveled at the near-infinite stars above. How could the wind blow so hard, yet the sky be so clear? The juxtaposition of the two was dizzying. I was facing aft getting the most protection and best view of the waves and Hazel was being guided by her wind vane self-steering system. The self-steering gear works great in a strong wind forereaching under headsails and only has problems if the wind decides to switch directions significantly. No matter, by looking to my right I could see The Big Dipper and Polaris off Hazel’s port beam. I had no need for the compass or electronics as long as Polaris stayed where it should. Eventually, I dozed in the cockpit with the watch timer set at 20 minute intervals. Every time I woke, the gale had mitigated just a little bit more, Polaris was where it should be and—as expected—The Big Dipper had rotated anti-clockwise a few degrees.
Finally, like a fever giving out after days of running a temperature, around 3:00 a.m. the gale broke and the wind started to drop. The timing was good as I was finally tired at that point. More to the good was that the ocean was empty. Although we were only 100 nautical miles off the Italian mainland, we hadn’t seen another ship in hours and we were too far offshore to have to deal with with any small fishing boats (unlike us Americans, the Italian locals are smart enough to not venture into gales). I went below decks, checked that the AIS alarm was running and also switched on the radar and set a radar guard alarm for 4 nautical miles (in the unlikely event we got close to a ship who was not running AIS or whose AIS was inoperable, the radar alarm would sound and wake me). Even though conditions were improving, it being a dark night I elected to not undress in the off chance we got clobbered by a late-gale thunderstorm. The comfort of knowing I could be on deck in seconds outweighed the discomfort of sleeping in damp foulies.
I woke a couple hours later to a hint of color in the eastern sky and an entirely different ocean. The winds was now blowing at a comfortable 10-15 knots and the seas were subsiding. Hazel’s speed had also slowed considerably as she was still just under staysail (extremely under-canvassed for the new conditions). Still it was dark and I wasn’t too keen on making a big sail change in the dark. I thought, Let me watch the wind for a bit and see what’s happening and make a change after sunrise. However, after 15-minutes of Hazel plodding along in the confused post-gale seas, I changed my line of thinking 180°, What if I got the spinnaker flying prior to sunrise? That would be awesome!
20-minutes later, with a glow to the east heralding the sun’s entrance to the day, I hoisted the spinnaker into the crepuscular sky and it cracked to life. Hazel was happy. I was happy. Hazel thanked my by accelerating from 3 knots to 5 knots. The spinnaker also stabilized her against the sea that was still running and her motion became comfortable and easy (as this video shows). The noises on deck and change in Hazel’s attitude were enough to wake Rhett and the rear admiral and the four of us (Rhett, Sunny, Hazel, and I) marveled at the sunrise (literally) under the spinnaker. With any luck, the forte of the passage was over, we’d finish our 2022 season of sailing on a piano note.
Our luck held out that day and we flew the spinnaker for the next 18 hours, all the way to Mount Orlando, the headland that shelters Gaeta Harbor. It was a marvelous and mild day of sailing provided by Poseidon. He knew just what we needed after his previous day’s test of our resolve.
Mid afternoon, and as Rhett was waking from a nap, I gave the call “Land Ho!” as mainland Italy hazily hove into view. A few hours later, Rhett and I were poised for sunset and watching for the rare green flash. I’d only seen it once and Rhett had never seen it. As the sun approached the clear horizon, I got my conch ready for a thankful blow to Poseidon, green flash or no green flash. Utterly amazingly, an instant after the burnt orange sun disappeared, we saw it! It was like an emerald lighthouse on the horizon—one flash and it was gone. Thrilling, and the perfect end to a perfect day. I finished with a long conch blow to the sea god.
Entering an unknown harbor at night is always a bit nerve wracking. To the good, Gaeta’s entrance was wide open with a big anchorage and plenty of room. To the not so good, the town is next to the harbor so the town’s lights make it difficult to see the harbor’s navigational lights. In addition, it’s not only a yachting port but also industrial and with a joint Italian-US naval base which all adds to the confusion. As we doused the spinnaker and fired up Ox and steamed slowly into port, Rhett took the helm and I monitored our two sets of electronic charts and radar—both of us kept a careful watch as we passed an exiting freighter starboard-to-starboard and soon after the flashing blue lights of a patrolling military small-boat warned us to give the base a wide berth.
As we neared the town and the Base Nautica Flavio Gioia marina (Hazel’s intended home for the winter), I unlashed our anchor and prepared to lower it. It was well after midnight at that point and we would anchor “on the outside” that night and enter the marina in the morning. Rhett gave the word when she like our position and depth and I lowered the anchor on its chain by hand until I felt it hit bottom in 4-5 meters of depth and then slowly paid out another 50-60 feet of chain as Hazel drifted downwind in the gentle night breeze. Rhett backed-down slowly on the anchor to set it in the muddy bottom, we then tested our anchor-set by giving Hazel 2/3rds sternward throttle and checking transits to make sure she wasn’t dragging, tidied up a bit, switched on the anchor light and slept.
We had paid with forte and savored our piano.
Fair winds and following seas!
Postscript: After entering the marina the next morning, I caught up on my ship’s log and calculated that I had sailed over 6,500 nautical miles in 2022–not bad! Rhett and Sunny did about 2,500 miles for the year since they didn’t do the transatlantic crossing with me. As comparison, our 2021 voyages to The Bahamas and Maine were a “mere” 4,100 nautical miles.
We’ve spent the last week preparing Hazel for the winter (more on that in a future post) and enjoying the town of Gaeta and Base Nautica’s amazing hospitality. A sailing friend of ours had recommended wintering at Base Nautica and we couldn’t be happier here—our girl Hazel is in good hands. Tomorrow we will take a train to Rome, spend a few days there, then make our way to Paris, and then to the British Isles and London for Christmas.
As we travel, I’ll do my best to keep the blog posts coming as we’ve had many more sailing adventures than I’ve had time to write about. Isn’t that the way life is supposed to be?