Quick Reminder of Daily Micro-Posts

Kaliméra! (Good Morning!) Happy Labor Day to all our friends back in the US. A good reminder that even in a highly digitized world, concrete, steel, rubber, petrochemicals are still the foundation of our human world and thanks to all who labor to make that possible.

Just a quick reminder that we’ve been pretty good about keeping up daily micro-posts of life aboard Hazel. You won’t get email notifications of the posts (probably better as who needs one more email per day). However, whenever you’re in the mood for a diversion flip over to the HJ Sailing home page and scroll down to the map of our location. By scrolling to the right on the ribbon at the bottom of the map (to the right of the Hazel James box), you can see our daily posts. The most recent post is first with older posts further to the right. Tap the post for full text and pictures.

This winter when I’m “land locked” back in Florida, I’ll write some more traditional long format posts with the deeper stories of the voyage.

Enjoy, and fair winds and following seas!

Phone view of HJ Sailing home page with most recent micro-post circled.

A New Tack

My history with blog posts has been poor this cruising season. I tend to repeat the same actions in hopes of a different outcome… In my mind I envision grand plans of frequent and (hopefully) poignant and insightful posts but it doesn’t happen. I just don’t have the concentrated time to sit down and focus and tell the stories that I want to tell. Oh well, I’ll try to catch up on them off-season, when we’re not cruising.

The new tack I’d like to try is to make daily (or near daily) “micro-posts” with pictures and our location on the tracker on our HJ Sailing Home Page. You can get to them by clicking on the tiles at the bottom of the map (and scrolling to the right to catch up on any micro-posts you may have missed). The inaugural micro-post I did this morning is titled “Steaming to Míkonos.”

Given the limitations of the platforms I use, there’s no option for you to receive an email notifying you that I’ve made a new micro-post (as there is for the regular long-format posts). That’s probably OK though as I’m sure you don’t want to be inundated by emails from me.

I hope you enjoy and I hope it feels like were on the journey together. Fair winds, following seas, and let me know if you are liking the format!

Today’s micro-post circled. Scroll to the right for older micro-posts.

Ionian Odysseys and Destinations

1 : a long wandering or voyage usually marked by many changes of fortune
2 : an intellectual or spiritual wandering or quest

Last winter, as Rhett and I were poring over Grecian charts and pilot books planning our cruising for the summer, we thought of the Ionian Islands (those west of the Greek mainland and in the Ionian Sea) merely as stepping stones to our dream destination: the “real” Greek islands of the Aegean. However, early in our Ionian sailing, on a still and sultry night moored in a marina next to a busy pedestrian thoroughfare, a 20-something English mariner and dreamer stopped to admire Hazel James. Although not an ancient mariner, he was a mariner. Sailors worth their salt can tell a long-haul ocean cruiser from a Mediterranean island-hopper in an instant. It’s half the design of the boat, and half how she’s rigged and the equipment she carries on deck (or lack thereof). Although young, he clearly had some sea miles and quickly asked if “we crossed” in her (crossed the Atlantic). When I said I did so last year, his English-accented reply: “Brilliant!” He was working on a crewed charter boat in the Ionian (as opposed to a un-crewed “bare boat”). As he told us about some of his favorite anchorages, islands, and villages in the Ionian, Rhett and I jotted furiously in our notebooks as there’s nothing like local intelligence from a like-mind. When he finished his enumeration and asked of our plans, we replied that our goal was to get to the Corinth Canal quickly and into the Aegean, his reply and counsel: “Don’t rush the Ionian.”

Frankly, when he offered his thoughts on that night, we listened but took his recommendation with a grain of salt as we thought he was (understandably) showing pride for his adopted cruising grounds. However, now that we’re into the Aegean and reflecting on our stern wake and our odyssey through the Ionian, we realize the wisdom of his advice.

Hazel at the berth where we received the opinion of our new English friend to not rush the Ionian. The old girl is surrounded by charter catamarans, a thoroughbred amongst childrens’ birthday ponies.
Map of Greece with the Heptanese (seven major islands of the Ionian) highlighted in blue. Although these are the principal islands, there are hundreds if not thousands of other islets.

Historical and Mythical Context

As form follows function, much of history follows geography. Zooming out the aperture for one moment, the strategic location of the Ionian Greek islands becomes clear.

Ionian Greek Islands (and the country of Albania) circled in yellow. Island of Corfu (where we made our Grecian landfall) circled in red. Note that the Southern Albanian coast is due east of Northern Corfu.

The Ionian derives its name from the goddess Io. Io was a priestess of Zeus’s wife Hera and for a for a short time a mistress to Zeus. Inevitably there was conflict when Hera discovered Zeus was deceiving her and, fearing what Hera in her wrath might do, he changed Io into a white cow. Not to be outdone, Hera sent a gadfly [horsefly] to torment the unfortunate Io, who plunged into the sea to rid herself of the stinging pest—hence the Ionian Sea.

Rod and Lucinda Heikell, Greek Waters Pilot

Located at the gateway to the Adriatic Sea (to the north), control of the Heptanese was key to controlling trade in the Eastern Mediterranean. Thus, since the 1400s, the Heptanese have been under the control of the Normans, Genoese, Italy (the Republic of Venice), French, and English, before joining Greece in 1864. Given that background, the Ionian Islands have much of an Italianate feel and architecture, as compared to Mainland and Eastern Greece.

Sunny and me in Corfu Town. Note the architecture, we could be dropped into an Italian piazza here. Our pasta dinner on this night was outstanding as well!

The Ionian doesn’t look like sun-baked rock and whitewashed houses of Greek travel brochures, they focus on the Aegean for their pictures. While still mountainous, the Heptanese are much more green, lush, and wooded—set against a dramatic backdrop of the barren mountains of Albania and Mainland Greece.

Hiking on the Island of Corfu.
Cypress trees punctuated the landscape.
Another boat sailing with the lush islands in the foreground and barren mainland mountains behind.

Taverna Culture

After our nine-day passage from Gaeta, Italy and a quiet night at anchor on the north end of Corfu, we entered Benitses Marina, about midway down the sickle-shaped island of Corfu. It was a pleasant little marina with a family atmosphere and the nicest staff who would do anything for you.

Benitses Marina and the Village of Benitses from a distance.
Closer to the marina. Hazel’s is the stubby mast below the arrow, her hull obscured by bigger boats (i.e., every other boat).

Also—and critical for someone whose been at sea for a week plus—the town of Benitses was lined with tavernas. I suppose you could be crass and just say “restaurant,” but that would lose the essence. There’s something unique about the ambiance of the ubiquitous Greek taverna: the umbrellas, the shady trees, the stringed lights, the cats rubbing against your legs (Sunny’s favorite part), the waitstaff so interested in where you’re from and how you got here, and—regardless of whether you are there for a coffee or a full meal—the food, the food, the food.

Rhett’s best friend, the “Rhett and Dan Whisperer” Maria is full-blooded Italian. She’s got something like 50 first-cousins and was amazed when she brought Rhett to a family holiday years ago and the family accepted her. (Hey, who needs friends when you have 50 cousins?) Long story short, although of German descent, Rhett classifies herself as “adopted Italian.” So one night in Benitses while capping off a meal with baklava, I offhandedly said that I preferred the Greek food to the Italian food. Rhett looked at me like I had taken the Lord’s name in vain and was going straight to hell. After much discussion, we finally agreed that it’s not a competition and there’s no right answer. The Greek food is so simple and there’s very little variety in the menu from one taverna to the other. However, it’s the flavors and the spices that make the simplicity so special.

Hazel in her marina berth with the village’s tavernas behind.
Appetizer of baked feta in phyllo with honey and black sesame seeds.
In addition to the tavernas, the vegetable markets are incredible. Typically run by a couple who speaks almost no English. We make it work though. Taste before you buy is the rule, especially for the olives. At time of purchase, the shopkeepers are always throwing in something extra, a melon or some apricots.
Our precious olives back aboard Hazel, packed and ready to store.
Our best attempt at a Greek salad aboard Hazel.
At a taverna-cafe, an unfiltered Greek coffee for me and freddo cappuccino (i.e, iced) for Rhett.
Menu in Greek and English.
Close encounter at a taverna.

Also in Benitses, Rhett celebrated a birthday!

Hazel offering her birthday wishes.
The staff at Benitses Marina celebrated with us and sang the Greek happy birthday song.
A more American rendition over dinner.
The Greeks do their birthday cake right!

Albania (it is a country you know)

In all honesty, if you would have told me something about Albania a year ago I would have given you a vague nod and scratched my chin with my thumb and forefinger to make it look like I understood you. Meanwhile, I would have been thinking, Is it a country? A region of several countries? A state within a country? If you would have then called my bluff and pulled out an unlabeled globe and asked me to point to Albania, I’d be lost. However, for us not only was the major port city of Sarande, Albania an easy 15 mile sail from Corfu, Albania is also outside the European Union and visiting there, and stamping out and back into the EU, would give us a chance to reset some immigration and customs particulars.

We went in to the country with very few expectations and came away with a high regard. The communist dictator Enver Hoxha (pronounced ho-JA) ruled the country with an iron fist from World War II until his death in 1985. It’s a complicated history…

Under Hoxha’s 41-year rule, Albania became a one-party communist state. His government rebuilt the country, which was left in ruins after World War II, building Albania’s first railway line, raising the adult literacy rate from 5–15% to more than 90%, wiping out epidemics, electrifying the country and leading Albania towards agricultural independence. To implement his radical program Hoxha used brutal tactics. His government outlawed travelling abroad and private proprietorship. He implemented state atheism and closed or converted to secular uses all of Albania’s religious facilities. His government imprisoned, executed, or exiled thousands of landowners, rural clan leaders, Muslim and Christian clerics, peasants who resisted collectivization, and disloyal party officials.


…yes, increasing literacy rates from 10 to 90%, but at what cost?

In addition Hoxha was paranoid of a capitalist invasion and oversaw the building of innumerable bunkers across the landscape as defense. There are communist-era stories of all able-bodied adults having compulsory military service (a month a year), and spending that time sitting in a bunker with a rifle.

Rhett, Sunny, and me examining a concrete Hoxha-era bunker (Corfu, Greece in the background).
Rhett and me enjoying the Albanian beach on a cooler evening.
Hazel tucked into the Albanian port terminal. Interestingly, we were berthed inside security so we had to show our mariner’s ID when entering or exiting the terminal.
Hazel at her berth from the other angle. Note the big yachts. Fueling in Albania is 30-40% cheaper than fueling in the EU, definitely worth it if you’re buy tens of thousands of dollars of fuel. Trust me though, those yachts have probably never been outside the Mediterranean. Or, if they have “done” a transatlantic, it was likely they were carried with a bunch of other yachts aboard a huge yacht transport ship—nobody punches above her weight-class like Hazel.

The highlight of our Albanian visit was a day excursion with our hired guide Demir. In addition to being a guide, he was a teacher and took such pride in his country. We booked Demir through an Albanian agent we used to help us with entry formalities into the country. Although our agent Agim was excellent and assured us that Demir was the best, as we prepared for the day, we had no idea what to expect. However, when Demir pulled up in his black Mercedes and we poured ourselves into its plush leather seats and reveled in the air conditioning, we knew it was going to be a great day (and that communism had truly fallen). Demir first took us to a castle overlooking the city of Sarande to get our bearings and squint and try to see our girl Hazel.

Rhett, Sunny, and Demir.
At the castle (now restaurant) overlooking Corfu and the Corfu Channel. Demir said that during the communist days, the channel was constantly swept by searchlights at night to guard against defections.
The Rear Admiral inspects the castle’s crenellations.

As we looked across the strait to Corfu, I asked Demir about defections during the communist era. To me, it didn’t look that far to Corfu. Swimmable by a strong swimmer so motivated, easy in a small boat. While Demir was a young boy when communism fell, he knew lots of stories from his elders. He said that not only did the strait bristle with searchlights and boats guarding against defection, it was made clear by the government that if you did defect, your entire family remaining in Albania would be immediately and severely punished for your actions.

Demir, then took us to the Blue Eye, a spring that literally springs from the ground at a rate of 4,800 gallons per second (a typical home swimming pool is 10,000-20,000 gallons).

The Blue Eye.

After lunch at a friend’s restaurant, Demir took us to the ruins of the city of Butrint. According to classical mythology, the city was founded by exiles from Troy after Troy fell at the end of the Trojan War (as chronicled in Homer’s Iliad). The ruins were amazing and the lack of crowds (as compared with Pompeii for instance) gave the site an unmistakeable reverence.

The theater in Butrint.
Demir and Rhett hamming it up on stage. Note, not another soul there.
Back in Sarande, the Rear Admiral took her first command of a sub. The Hunt for Red October if you will.
Finally, you’ve got to have a deep respect for a country that sells both beer and cigarettes in vending machines, mixed in with all the other junk food.

Deeper into the Ionian

From Albania, we made an overnight sail southward to the town of Preveza, Greece and re-entered the EU. In addition to the amazing marina at Preveza (whose bathrooms and showers rivaled a hotel’s) our tour of Nikopolis and its museum was the highlight. Julius Caesar was assassinated by Roman senators in 44 BC for fear that he was becoming too powerful, too imperious and threatening the Roman republic (as memorialized in Shakespeare’s classic tragedy). However, instead of a return to stability after the assassination, the republic was plunged into a decade of intermittent civil war. Finally, in 31 BC Octavian’s naval forces met Mark Antony and Cleopatra’s in the waters off Preveza. After Octavian routed Mark Antony and Cleopatra, he founded the city of Nikopolis to commentate his victory. Ironically, although Julius Caesar’s assassination was meant to preclude the Roman republic becoming an empire (ruled by one emperor), after Antony and Cleopatra’s defeat, Octavian (a.k.a., Caesar Augustus) founded the Roman Empire and reigned as it’s first emperor.

Rhett and Sunny at the odium (small theater) in Nikopolis. There was an even larger amphitheater in the city.
Original fresco from a Byzantine church later built on the site.
Excellent archeological museum as well.

It’s (Still Mostly) Greek to Me

Although French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, German, etc. can be a challenge for us monolingual English speakers, at least we’re all using the same 26 letter alphabet. However Greek is a whole different story. Most mornings I’ve been trying to spend 10 minutes or so learning my 24 Greek letters and pronunciations of each. While I’ve gotten pretty good with the capital letters, the small letters give me fits—especially when, in real-life scenarios, they are in different fonts. Why do this, you ask? Well, for starters, our word “Alphabet” comes from the first two letters of the Greek alphabet: Alpha and Beta—that’s reason enough for me.

Baffling at first sight. At least most of these names are in Greek and English. As we get further and further east, there’s less and less English.
The cheat sheet that I use most every morning. (From our trusty Rick Steves’ Greek travel guide.)

While trying to sound out a Greek word in Greek script is a bit of a fool’s errand (since you just end up with a rough pronunciation of a foreign word that you do not know), I find that when walking town docks and marinas, it’s fun to try to sound out boat names. It’s a thrill when I figure one out…

I was happy with my literary sleuth work on this one. The confusing letters for us are the rho (“Ρ” in the first word, pronounced roughly as our “R”) and the two lambdas in the second word (“Λ” pronounced as our “L”). Making those transliterations and I concluded the little fishing vessel’s name is Maria-Stella.

The Sailing in the Ionian

In advance of entering Greek waters we had heard that the sailing in the Ionian was quite mild whereas it blows hard in the Aegean (especially in July and August). These forewarnings have borne themselves out for us. In the Ionian, we found ourselves having to motor more than we’d like (which for me is motoring at all). However, as I write this post about the Ionian while in the Aegean, I’m hunkered in Hazel’s saloon while she rides to anchor in a protected anchorages with the winds gusting to 25 knots.

Here are some good videos of the sailing and mooring in the Ionian…

Sailing under spinnaker in the Lefkas canal.
An isolated med mooring.

Brotherhood of Creepy Loners

By this point in our Ionian voyaging Rhett had departed for the US and it was just Sunny and me aboard Hazel.

While anchored off the tiny and uninhabited island of Formíkoula, I finally met someone who didn’t think I was a creepy loner. That was the good news. The not so good news is that he himself was a creepy loner. The “he” being my now good friend Antonio aboard Creuza de mä (Genoese local dialect for “Path to the sea”).

Hazel James and Creuza de mä cavorting off Nisis Formíkoula.
Stopping by to say Buongiorno to Antonio
Fascinated by Antonio’s boat cat Nikos. (I know what’s on Sunny’s Christmas wish list.)
The dried eelgrass of the tiny island made Sunny’s shore leave especially fun.
Seals in the Mediterranean—who knew? (I certainly didn’t.) One morning at anchor I saw two Mediterranean monk seals. Unfortunately they are critically endangered with only 600 or so left in the world.

A Microcosm

While the entire subject of this post is journeys and destinations, here’s that broader theme condensed into a morning.

On what would be my last morning at Formíkoula, Sunny and I went for a sunrise circumnavigation of the tiny island in Lil’ Dinghy (about 20 minutes of earnest rowing, we took an hour or so poking into little bays and caves). As we rowed along, I noticed that the wind was uncharacteristically brisk for early morning in the Ionian when it is typically dead calm. As we neared Hazel at the completion of our row, I resolved to get sailing as soon as possible and try to capitalize on that wind for the short 5-10 mile sail to One House Bay on Atikos Island. Now typically whatever wind there is in Ionian doesn’t start blowing until midday so my tactic was a little risky, but all I was risking was a becalm and potentially motoring for a bit. I prepped Hazel for sail, made some granola and dried fruit that I’d eat while sailing, pulled the anchor and, on our way out of the anchorage, sailed by Creuza de mä and bade caio! and Fair Winds and Following Seas to Antonio.

While the sail started well enough, soon enough we were becalmed. I was a bit hacked off at myself for departing into what had the good chance of being a becalm and was seriously thinking of throwing in the towel motoring the rest of the way to Atikos Island, when I looked down and beheld the most beautiful manta ray. Clearly something I never would have seen had I just been motoring along. The manta spent 15 minutes or so circumscribing lazy circles around Hazel. Now that I think of it, if I would have had wind and been sailing along, perhaps I would have caught a glimpse of the manta but it would have been a much shorter encounter.

One House Bay

I had heard rumored that, although stunning, One House Bay was a popular destination for charter sailors and I shouldn’t expect much privacy or solitude. While that advice was correct, I happily noted that a lot of the boats visited the somewhat exposed bay for the day but in late afternoon departed for more secure overnight anchorages, leaving much more room for the rest of us who overnighted there.

The eponymous one house of One House Bay low in the middle of the picture surrounded by trees. Picture taken during early morning before the bay filled up with day sailors. Note the exposed rock face to the left (behind Hazel’s turquoise hull).
Here’s that same rock face on a different morning. Looking closely, note the wavy striations from being in an earthquake zone.
This nearby strata has been totally upended.

Sunny and I discovered some trails behind the one house of One House Bay and the strenuous uphill hiking rewarded us with some excellent views of the party scene below.

Our first view downward in the middle of a glorious day (note how many day boats). Hazel is in the exact center of the picture.
From a bit higher up showing the water color below and Greek mainland in the background.

Further on, on our hike we saw some interesting things…

If you’re like me you spend a lot of your waking hours thinking about how life is just a series of “Far Side” cartoons. I loved the depth that Gary Larson could plumb in one single panel. Years ago Colleen gave me the four-volume complete works of Gary Larson for Christmas. An ever so thoughtful present and it occupied a prized scatological place in our home for years.

So, when hiking on the narrow seldom-used path and we happened upon a spider web literally blocking the way, and the spider wrapping its prize of all prizes…

A spider with a cicada (Rhett would say June bug) several times its size.

…I was immediately reminded of this Gary Larson panel…

We carefully walked around the deserving spider and I hope that he or she ate like a king for days.

As we passed the spider and I was chuckling about the image of The Far Side cartoon in my head, I started thinking about my thinking, which got me thinking about my recent, rather dark, post My Worst Self Living My Best Life, and this thinking brought me back to another Far Side image…

At the top of the trail (and top of the mountain) we found a ruined homestead complete with a disused well. It was amazing to think that there’d be enough hydrostatic pressure high above sea level to keep a well filled in arid Greece.

The well.
Peeking inside. Yes there was water in it.

Of course this got me wondering that if I put Sunny down for safekeeping and peered deep into the well, lost my balance and fell in, would Sunny run back to the bay to find the nearest humans and bark excitedly at them? If so, would the humans reply to Sunny, “Τι είναι το Sunny; Έχει πέσει ο κύριός σας σε πηγάδι και χρειάζεται βοήθεια;” (which transliterates into English as, “What is it Sunny? Has your master fallen down a well and needs help?”

Back aboard Hazel in One House Bay, I had another interesting sighting. Or, should I go with the plural and say interesting sightings? After our hike and a swim, Sunny and I were both cooled down and ready for a well-deserved nap. It was also midafternoon and the bay was packed, mostly with charter boats but there were a few of us private cruisers scattered around. Before lying down on the saloon berth, I gave one last look through the portlights to make sure no other boats were drifting too close. I noticed a new private sailing cruiser charging into the bay “French style” (that is, coming in at speed and clearly ready to bump a few elbows to make room to anchor). It appeared to be a husband and wife on board, or maybe male/female partners. He was at the helm and she on the foredeck ready to lower the anchor—a typical configuration for a crew of two preparing to anchor. However, what to my prudish American eyes should appear, but she looks to be topless. The boat was aways off so I chalked this up to a misperception from tired eyes. I busied myself with something else for a minute and looked again at the approaching yacht. Yup, as expected, French ensign flying off the transom. I looked to the boat’s foredeck and did a double-take (or, should I say, a double-take of a double-take). Yup, she was riding proud on the bow like a nautical Lady Godiva.

I decided if she could do that midday in a crowded anchorage I no choice but to partially embrace my creepy loner-ness. I grabbed my good camera and snapped on its telephoto lens. I call it my “good” camera to differentiate it from my phone’s camera (obviously, the “good” is not any commentary on the ethicality of the pictures taken with it).

In retrospect, it wasn’t my most crisp picture. I took the photo surreptitiously from below decks. (A full embrace of my creepy loner-ness would have freed me to take the picture from above decks but, surprisingly, even I have my limits.) Taking the photo through Hazel’s open portlight meant that I was shooting through both the fly screen of the portlight and the lifeline netting around her gunwales. That’s OK though, I think a little fuzzy and blurry adds some art to the shot. (Think about it: there’d be no mystique in a crystal-clear picture of bigfoot.)

Anchor’s aweigh!

There’s a funny PS to this story…

If you note, the boat has a rather distinctive blue stripe. Rhett and I often comment that when cruising, you just sort of keep running into some boats in different anchorages. To wit, just the other day I was in the Aegean (weeks after my aforementioned sighting and a hundred-plus miles from One House Bay) enjoying a quiet anchorage when a very similar looking boat starts—once again—charging in. Hmmmm, woman on deck, blue stripe at the top of the hull, looks like a guy at the helm, French tricolor flying off the transom—could it be? Too far off to tell what she was (or wasn’t) wearing north of the equator. As the boat hove closer, my initial hopes of a double-exposure were dashed. (Or, should I say a double, double-exposure?) It was the same boat alright, and same crew, but she was clothed. (Perhaps too much sun in tender areas?) However, as they slid past us and deeper into the anchorage and I got a good look at the helmsman, I saw all of him. Yup, naked as the eyes of a clown. While he was at the ship’s wheel, his tiller was plainly visible. I started to reach for the camera, but my better angels prevailed—even I have my limits.

The Odyssey to Odysseus’ Home

In talking to a Greek couple on the beach at One House Bay, they kept talking about an island that sounded to my ear like “eh-THA-ka” (clearly three syllables). While intrigued with their description of the beautiful island, I finally had to stop them and ask about the name because I had never “heard” of it. After a bit of back and forth, I said, “Oh! Ithaca” (pronouncing it “ITH-ahka” in one long syllable as an American would pronounce Ithaca, New York). Of course when I said “Ithaca” they looked at me like I had two heads and had no idea what I was saying.

Odysseus, a key figure in Homer’s Iliad and the eponym of Homer’s Odyssey (let’s call it the sequel to the Iliad), ruled the Kingdom of Ithaca. While that all sounds neat and tidy—a Kingdom of Ithaca and an island of Ithaca—it isn’t. Assuming Odysseus was a real person (likely but not totally positive), he would have lived in the Mycenaean Era, 1550-1200 BC (a long time ago) and while there’s some pretty good evidence that the Kingdom of Ithaca comprised several islands and Odysseus’ castle and home was on today’s Ithaca, it’s not totally proven. From learning more, I also get the sense there’s a lot of local pride with amateur and professional archeologists searching for evidence that “their” island is the real home of Odysseus.

Anyway, I’m sticking with Ithaca and was excited when I made landfall there. My first night was in a rather remote anchorage and the next morning I motored four miles in a dead calm to the town of Vathi.

First night’s secluded anchorage on Ithaca. The Rear Admiral enjoying some après-sail shore leave.
The next day overlooking the town of Vathi. Hazel at anchor slightly to the right of center furthest away.

In researching Vathi I discovered that there was a trail starting in the town to the supposed cave of the nymphs described in the Odyssey:

and at the head of the harbor is a slender-leaved olive
and near by it a lovely and murky cave
sacred to the nymphs called Naiads.
Within are kraters and amphoras
of stone, where bees lay up stores of honey.
Inside, too, are massive stone looms and there the nymphs
weave sea-purple cloth, a wonder to see.
The water flows unceasingly. The cave has two gates,
the one from the north, a path for men to descend,
while the other, toward the south, is divine. Men do not
enter by this one, but it is rather a path for immortals.

The Odyssey, Book 13, Homer
Hiking to the cave of the nymphs further above Vathi. Note Atikos Island in the background with its One House Bay.
On my way to the cave, I happened upon a little (Greek Orthodox) chapel. There were no roads to it, so I would think that all church goers and supplies hike in or our brought on the backs of pack animals.
The bad news…the door was locked. The good news…the key was in the door.
Inside, just beautiful. Sunny and I sat for awhile and left a donation.
The chapel’s bell.
Finally we arrived at the entrance to the cave. Since Sunny and I are mere mortals and since the barred door was locked and there was no key in the door, I assume this was the south gate…the path for immortals. Sunny told me later that there’s nothing like the smell of fresh nymph.
Back aboard Hazel, a view up the mountain where I had hiked with the tiny chapel circled. The cave entrance is to the right of the chapel somewhere.

I wanted to learn more about Homer and Odysseus and so connected with a guide, teacher, and archeologist Spyros Couvaras. I called Spyros on a Sunday morning and, since it was in the middle of the big Greek heat wave, agreed to meet at the “Homer’s School” at 6 o’clock that evening. I would arrive via taxi (about 20 minutes from Vathi, he would come on his scooter). As we hung up I thought, Hmmm Homer’s School, I wonder what it is? Immediately I pictured…

That evening while the light was still good but the day’s heat was mitigating, the taxi dropped me off at some ruins in the middle of nowhere and sped off. After a few desolate minutes, wondering if I was in the right place and if I might have my own odyssey trying to get back to Hazel, a cheery guy drives up in an old scooter and says, “Are you Dahniel?”

Spyros dismounted, shook my hand and patted Sunny’s head. He was wearing a light blue linen collared shirt and plaid shorts. His hair was cut short but thick—the classic black, and salt and pepper of the 50-something Greek. Although he occasionally smoked, he carefully saved his cigarette butts rather than sullying this hallowed ground with them. He wore sturdy walking shoes and his legs were curiously and recently scratched. (I’d learn later from thorned bushes that tend to grow at archeological sites.) He asked me a few introductory questions to understand what I wanted to learn from our time together and was thrilled when I told him I had read the Iliad and Odyssey. I was quick to point out though that I only understood portions of them—he chuckled. Spyros motioned to a picnic table with benches and we sat and he started with a little talk. To aid his descriptions he pulled out a well-used timeline that I found immensely helpful.

The stories of the Iliad (i.e., the Trojan War, “Ilium” is another name for the city-state of Troy) and the Odyssey took place during the Mycenaean period (1550-1200 BC). From 1200 to 800 BC there was a Greek Dark Age of which we know very little. Homer is guessed to have lived around 600 BC (the early Archaic period) but the Iliad and Odyssey were not written down until later in the Archaic period (around 600 BC).

Spyros then walked me around Homer’s School which is thought by many to have been Odysseus’ castle. After the ten year Trojan War, Odysseus spent another ten years trying to get back here. (Why so long? You ask. Spoiler alert: Poseidon was royally pissed that Odysseus blinded his son Polyphemus, a cyclops.) Even if this site wasn’t Odysseus’ home, there’s pretty good evidence that Homer used the location when composing the Odyssey as the descriptions from the epic poem and archeologists’ interpretations of the ruins closely match.

Also, there’s legend that when Homer was orally teaching his works to other poets, he did so at this location (thus Homer’s School).

Having Spyros as my guide was invaluable. While I would have stumbled around thinking, Well these big rocks are interesting. Spyros told the stories about what was likely located where and how it all fit together. He also didn’t shy away from the mystery surrounding the location, the controversies, and what we still don’t know.

Likely location of the megaron (the great hall) in the castle. It’s thought that Homer spoke to his disciple-poets from the promontory to the upper right.
Remains of the tower above the castle, and likely Penelope’s bedroom (Odysseus’ wife).
View from Penelope’s bedroom where she’d search the horizon for Odysseus.
I love off-the-beaten-track archeological sites. No fences, no glass partitions, no safety measures. Here Spyros removes a blue plastic tarp to show me what was likely the foundry of the castle.

After touring the ruins, we sat again at the picnic table and Spyros pulled out the timeline once again and proceeded to tell me about the, “Problems with Homer.” I thought to myself, Well that’s easy: drinks too much Duff beer, overweight, bad husband and father, gets in trouble with his boss Mr. Burns—and the list goes on. No, what Spyros meant were the the mysteries surrounding Homer.

First, in almost all art forms, the art evolves over generations and generations. Spyros told me to think of simple cave paintings evolving to two-dimensional Egyptian drawings and Medieval paintings, then finally to the three-dimensional realistic perspective of the Renaissance. However, while Homer is recognized as one of the most revered and influential authors in history, we don’t have evidence any any substantive authors preceded him. Did they exist and Homer learned from them but their oral works were lost? Was Homer just that far advanced and that much of an genius? What a beautiful mystery.

Second, between the Iliad and Odyssey, there are nearly 30,000 lines. As comparison, a Shakespeare play has 2,000 to 4,000 lines (of course memorization of these lines are shared by multiple actors). How is it then that a Homer could compose and memorize and transmit to others the rough quantity of ten Shakespeare plays. The enigma heightens the intrigue.

The sun was now well below the horizon and it was getting dark. As a last stop, Spyros wanted to take me to the little museum in the nearby village of Stavros where I could also get a good taverna dinner and a taxi back to the town of Vathi and Hazel. Spyros motioned to the back of his scooter for Sunny and me and said, “We better keep moving, the lights on my scooter don’t work.”

Cephalonia and Departing the Ionian

From the east coast of Ithaca, Sunny and I then made a 10-15 mile day sail south, down the east coast of Ithaca and then west to the island of Cephalonia. In my previous post I had recommended the book and movie Corelli’s Mandolin/Captain Corelli’s Mandolin as further reading/watching for those interested in Ionian Greece recent history. The plot takes place on the island of Cephalonia.

The channel sailing north with Ithaca to starboard and Cephalonia to port.

Sunny and I rented a car for a day on Cephalonia and had a grand time exploring the island.

East coast of Cephalonia taken from a pullout on the road.
Massive caves in Cephalonia. For scale, note the people in the lower left.

When I’m in a cave, it’s fascinating to think about how slowly stalactites (the ones that descend from the ceiling) and stalagmites (ascending from the floor) grow. The average stalactite grows at a rate of a tenth of a millimeter per year (the fastest at 3 millimeters per year). The size of this cave and the length of its stalactites and stalagmites, combined with those growth rates, puts the age of this cave—and our brief time on earth—all in perspective.

I caught this one drop of water helping to form a juvenile stalactite.

From Cephalonia we had a 100+ nautical mile sail to the city of Corinth and the Corinth Canal, our gateway to the Aegean Sea. (I’ll highlight that sail in a subsequent post.) After a couple days on Cephalonia I noted that the weather forecasts showed an upcoming westerly blow (blowing from the west to the east), perfect for a downwind “sleigh ride” through the Gulf of Corinth. We set sail from Cephalonia in the afternoon, trying to time our arrival in Corinth for the next afternoon (sailing nonstop through the night).

As we exited the Ionian Sea and entered the Gulf of Patras on our way toward the Gulf of Corinth, I looked back at the sun setting into the Ionian islands and felt a pang of loss but smiled through the mourning. I was sad about this period of my life in this place being over. Our friend’s words echoed in my head, Whatever you do, don’t rush this Ionian. How right he was.

Would I ever return, or is the last time I’ll ever see the Heptanese? Sure, sometime in the future I might fly over them and high above look down as if a god; I might “sail” on a fast-ferry through them, covering our two months here in two hours; but would I ever return to sail its waters on our boat on our terms? I smiled about what I had expierenced. At sea level, I’d learned about the history and people of this part of the world. Far below the sunny surface, I’d learned a deeper lesson that the odyssey is the destination.

Looking west and sailing east. The Ionian astern, bound for the Gulf of Corinth.

Fair winds and following seas!

Quick Update—On the Move!

Καλημέρα! (Good morning! Transliterated from Greek to English as “Kaliméra.” Pronounced just as it looks with the emphasis on the accented syllable.)

Our first scooter ride in Greece. Sunny is squished between my archeologist guide Spyros and me. More on the background of this shot in our next post.
…just moments before. “Climb aboard!” (What could possibly go wrong?)

All is well with Sunny, Hazel, and me; Rhett is making progress on the home front back in Florida. I’m currently anchored in the harbor of Agia Effimia (“Agia” translates to Saint) on the island of Kefalonia (sometimes transliterated to “Cephalonia.”). As an aside, if you’re looking for a great summer read, a 20th century historical fiction/romance novel of the area, I highly reccomend Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (sometimes released as Corelli’s Mandolin) by Louis Bernières. The film, starring Nicolas Cage, Penèlope Cruz, and John Hurt, is a shallower dive but good nonetheless. I’ve heard it described well as a novel by an English author with a French name about Italians and Nazi Germans in Albania and Greece—‘nuff said.

On to the updates…

First, thanks for all the well-wishes about the fires here in Greece. Fortunately we haven’t been affected, not even a noticeable change in the air quality, or sunrises or sunsets. My heart goes out to those suffering though. Crazy that some of the island of Corfu has burned and we were there just a month ago. Also for us, fortunately Rhett got out when she did (she departed from the Corfu airport). With so many people on holiday being impacted, now it’s probably impossible to find a flight with the fire evacuees.

Secondly, for those of you who track Hazel’s location on our home page, you may have noticed a degradation of quality and timeliness of the updates, including a whacky magic carpet ride to Turkey and back. No the satellites are working fine, it’s due to the erratic nature of the captain (no surprise there, given my last post). When we were sailing the open water, far far from a land-based a cellular signal, I had a monthly satellite communications package that included hourly updates on our position. While the tracking was great, it cost the amount of a fairly rich cable/internet bundle at home so I discontinued it and am just making manual updates when we are in new ports (thus the straight lines over terra firma). Also, manual entry of latitude and longitude are subject to user error, so—after one update when I got messages from friends asking, “Did you fly to Turkey?”—I discovered that I can’t delete a position update, just make a correction with a new update.

Besides, if I had really flown to Turkey on some “Midnight Express” drug run, do you think I’d be so naive as to post it on the internet?

BTW, if anyone’s looking for some killer hash, hit me up on Telegram when I’m back stateside.

Finally, I’m typing this out in a self-serve laundromat in Agia Effimia doing some wash before sailing. As a solo sailor, I thought my clothes smelled fine. Sunny however, with the nose of a hound, begged to differ. As a tiebreaker, I asked my sailing clothes what they thought since they had a vested interest (‘nuck, ‘nuck…pun intended). My shorts and shirts silently answered by slinking their way up the companionway steps onto the bridge deck, into the cockpit. From there, they dropped themselves into Lil’ Dinghy with a plop. I’d been overruled so I’m doing laundry.

The main reason that I’m doing it today though is that this afternoon and through the night, we’re supposed to get a fresh breeze (about 20 knots) out of the northwest. Assuming the forecasts are directionally correct (a 50/50 proposition in the Med), I’m going to to take the opportunity for a long sail into the Gulf of Patras, then into the Gulf of Corinth and maybe all the way to the ancient city of Corinth. (I may stop halfway in the Gulf of Corinth to tour the Oracle of Delphi, we’ll see.) All the way to Corinth would be about 120 nautical miles. Say 24 hours or so of sailing. Not all that long in the grand scheme of things but a lot longer than the 5-20 mile jaunts we’ve been doing lately on our island hops. It’s also night sailing, solo, in congested waters close to shore with other yachts, commercial traffic, and fishing vessels so I’ll have to keep my wits about me.

Intended sailing. I’m currently at the blue dot on Kefalonia. Corinth (Korinthos) at the end of the arrow. Mount Parnassus is circled where the Oracle of Delphi is located.

Also, depending on the strength of the gradient wind (caused by differentials in air pressure gradient) it may get a bit breezy around Patras as the converging land masses funnel and accelerate the gradient wind. It shouldn’t be too crazy though and the seas should be pretty flat. We’ve also got a waxing moon, between first quarter and full. That should give some nice light for night sailing.

If all goes according to plan, this evening I’ll exit the Ionian Sea. When sailing together, Rhett and I comment that we’re both a bit sad when we leave a beautiful island, a good marina with new friends we’ve met, a good town anchorage, or an entire sea. Who knows when or if we will ever return? But, with that being said, I’m looking forward to transiting the Corinth Canal that will take us from the Gulf of Corinth to the Aegean Sea!

I’ll keep you updated and also am working on my travelogue post for the Ionian. Fair winds and following seas!

My Worst Self Living My Best Life

Manta ray that lazily circled a becalmed Hazel James for 20 minutes. Reflection of Hazel’s bow and pulpit in the lower left.

Divining between correlation and causation is always a challenge, and sometimes a fool’s errand. Two variables seem to consistently change in a pattern but is it “α” that causes “β”, or β that causes α? Or is there no causality between the two and they are merely correlated? (Perhaps some other, as yet unknown, variable causes both α and β to occur simultaneously?) Or, is it just random noise and we as humans—evolutionarily programmed to search for reason, meaning, and connection—concoct some cockamamie story in an attempt to make sense of it all.

However, all that high falutin logic-talk doesn’t change the fact that I can be a real ass…a real ass to the people that I care about the most.

For argument’s sake, let’s assign the Greek letter α (alpha) to how exotic, dreamy, and once-in-a-lifetime the surroundings in which Rhett, Sunny, Hazel James, and I find ourselves in at any given moment. I’m sure you’ve already guessed that β (beta) is how much of an ass I am at the time.

What I’ve noticed is that often α and β vary in a pattern. The more absolutely amazing a place we’re in, the more we’re surrounded by nature, the more that how we got to that place was an achievement of a lifetime, seems like the time I should also be the most grateful for being alive and being able to do what so few others have a chance to do (and to do it in the way of my choosing). I should be in a state of sublime oneness with the universe, approaching self-actualization. But no, I’m angry, I’m petty, I fixate on the little bits that are going wrong and not the grand scheme that’s going so right. I look to place blame and find the one I love the most. Why?

Sunrise off Nisos Meganisi (Meganisi Island).

I was 50 when my sister Amy died at the age of 54. Being with her as she faded away started me thinking about alternative ways to live the remainder of my life. Four years later I had just outlived my sister when my late-wife Colleen died at the age of 50. If Amy gently took me by the hand, led me forward and urged me to peer over the edge, Colleen snuck up behind me while I was transfixed by the abyss and gave me a firm but loving push between my shoulder blades. I was off balance and there was no turning back.

Colleen died August 21, 2019 and my birthday was just weeks after. Now, in this summer of 2023, I’m staring down the double-barrel of Colleen’s death anniversary and my 59th birthday. Almost exactly four years ago today, Colleen celebrated one-year of sobriety, an amazing milestone and a testament to her commitment and effort. She was asked to speak and share her story at an open AA meeting and our son Jack and I attended. It was moving, it was inspiring. At that point, Jack, Emma, and I allowed ourselves cautious optimism—a feeling we hadn’t experienced in a long time. A month later, she was gone.

Between then and now has been a dizzying four years. In early 2020, as a creepy loner (a.k.a., single-handed sailor), Hazel and I sailed to The Bahamas and Caribbean and ended up locked down in the British Virgin Islands during the pandemic. In 2021 Hazel and I shanghaied Rhett as crew and we sailed to The Bahamas and up and down the US East Coast all the way to Maine. In early 2022, Sunny signed up as lowly ship’s mascot but was quickly promoted to Rear Admiral of the fleet and our growing but ever-motley crew sailed back to The Bahamas. Just over a year ago (spring and summer of 2022), I sailed across the Atlantic as a creepy loner and Rhett and the Rear Admiral joined me in Lisbon and we sailed south through the Strait of Gibraltar and into the Mediterranean. After sailing Spain’s Balearic Islands and Italy’s Sardinia, Hazel enjoyed a peaceful winter on the west coast of the Boot of Italy. We woke her up this spring and sailed her to Ionian Greece where I now sit by myself pecking away on a keyboard in Hazel’s dimly lit saloon. Although it’s a quarter ‘til ten in the evening, the faint glow of the sun is still in the sky. We’re anchored in the lee of the remote and uninhabited Nisos Formíkoula (Nisos is Greek for Island). The diurnal Ionian northwest prevailing wind is settling down and Hazel’s bouncing around is easing. The sky above is as clear as the water below and tonight is the New Moon. With no city or town lights to be seen and only a couple other boats in the anchorage light pollution is at a minimum and in a couple hours the stargazing should be amazing.

Several days ago, I gave myself the newly minted designation of mitigated creepy loner. Rhett is traveling to Florida to take care of some things that we tried so hard to deal with remotely but in the end decided together it would be best for her to get home for a month. Although I’m a single-handed sailor again, I have the mitigating factor of Sunny on board. I see it so clearly in other sailors’ eyes when we say hello boat-to-boat, or meeting in a marina or on a beach, He’s a single-handler and he certainly looks creepy enough with that long hair and old boat. But, how weird can a guy be who sails with a miniature dachshund?

The point is that while Amy and Colleen may be giving me heavenly high-fives for learning from their demises, and me—borderline frenetically—not squandering a second of my time, a more objective and less generous person could rightfully say that I’m just a little boy running away, scared to face the demons that might catch him if he stops in one place for long enough. A little boy running away from his responsibilities (I’ve run so far and for so long I don’t even know what those responsibilities are—perhaps that proves the point.), running away from his checkered past, running away from pain, running away from memories.

While these past four years have honed my skills as a first-class escape artist, it’s now dawning on me that the only thing I can’t escape from—is me. I run, I run, I run. I sail, I sail, I sail. I can evade anything and everything…everything except my shadow.

As I reflect on my recent adventures it also occurs to me that it’s easier to sail across an ocean solo than it is to change yourself.

Sure, someone who knows me well might think, But Dan, you have changed so much the past four years. You used to have a job, a house, short hair, and deadlines and commitments…the works. Now you’ve got none of that. While that’s all true, deep down I’m still me. Popeye (another sailor man) often said in his gravely salt-stained voice, “I am what I am.” Maybe his wisdom was accepting who he was (and Olive Oil loved him for it)—I, on the other hand, have not. I know I can be a better self, to me and to others. The question is how? Do I try harder? Should I be easier on my self, try less and just let it happen? Maybe I do something radical—like try to communicate more effectively?

Sunrise and cave exploring in Lil’ Dinghy on Nisos Atokos. Barely visible silhouette of Sunny in the lower left foreground.

On the subject of not being my best self, I also wasn’t my best self the months and years before Colleen died. Maybe I was good, maybe I was even above average in the situation, but I could have been better. That fact haunts me on a daily basis. Sure, there are a lot of excuses that I could make for what happened and how it happened, and I could produce a litany of good things that I did for Colleen as she struggled—but still, Colleen and I were married, we were supposedly soulmates when she died. I can’t help feeling like I was at the helm when the beautiful yacht Colleen was lost.

I guess the sailing and “at the helm” analogy implies that I had some kind of control over the situation (many addiction treatment professionals would argue that I didn’t). I do believe in those last days Colleen and I had lost “steerage way” (when a boat is moving so slowly through the water that the rudder has no effect on its direction, like turning a car’s steering wheel when the car isn’t moving). However, in the big picture a good captain isn’t concerned with loss of steerage way moments before a disaster, his concern is with not getting his ship, his crew and passengers, and himself in a potentially disastrous situation in the first place. In the weeks and months prior to August 21, 2019, the warning signs where there. In retrospect, the forecasts were ominous and although I heeded them, I didn’t heed them enough. I guess I figured that the yacht Colleen had weathered a lot of storms and could take care of herself through this one. Little did I know, this last time would be different.

When Colleen, and all of us close to her, were trapped in a seemingly endless wash-rinse-repeat cycle of relapse, remorse, and months of treatment followed almost immediately by another relapse, I’d often ask myself, When will this ever end? I should have been more careful about what I wished for and the tacit implications of my wish. Back then I never dreamed that it could end like it ended.

One House Bay on Nisos Atokos. Hazel is the smallest yacht just to left-of-center in the bay.

When Rhett left for the airport a day ago with a circuitous routing home (from Corfu Greece into one London airport and out of the other London airport to Dallas-Fort Worth and then to Ft. Lauderdale), her departure wasn’t because of my behaviors. However, we both agreed that the past couple weeks had been tough and that “a little space and time apart” would be healthy for both of us. Although there’s a lot of magic in what we’re doing, the day-to-day realities of extended sailing during the Greek summer in a Europe-wide heat wave and us together 24×7 on a 31-foot boat (of course with no air conditioning), piled on top of the other things demanding Rhett’s attention back home had been challenging. Given the situation and what Rhett needs to do at home, “a little space and time” has turned into 5,700 miles and a month. Now, just a couple days into that month, I miss her terribly. Again, one should always be careful of what they wish for.

Morning clouds spilling over Nisos Meganisi as we sail by.

Prior to leaving, Rhett had shared some of our travails with her best friend Maria. (Maria is the “Rhett whisperer.” Or, maybe more accurately, “the Rhett and Dan whisperer.”) She’s is ever-generous when it comes to me, what I’m going through and my healing process. While Rhett unfailingly sees the good in my soul, having a wise friend with a wider aperture is essential. As I understand Maria’s analysis (through Rhett’s translation to me), I’m recovering, I’m grieving, I’m processing all that’s gone on in these past years—I take steps forward and I take steps backward. It sounds so simple when it’s said and when I read what I have just written, but it’s so hard for me to remember, to truly internalize. It’s so hard for me to accept that maybe I’m not as strong and independent as I think I am. That we all need grace.

I guess the paramount questions for me at the outset of my month of mitigated creepy loner sailing in paradise, is how I learn, how I grow, how I process the sultry summer of 2023 and the searing summer memories of 2019?

Sunrise in a quiet anchorage.

With “a bit more time on my hands” I’ll try to follow-up in the next couple days with an (I promise) lighter post about our adventures in Greece, and Albania.

Until then, fair winds and following seas. Thank you so much for your non-judgmental reading and following along. It’s funny, being alone in the middle of the ocean is so similar to being “alone” in crowded anchorages, packed-full with charter boats in high season. In solitude, my thoughts so often return to friends and family at home, how I miss them and how I wish they were with me to share the good times.

Hazel anchored off the uninhabited Nisos Formíkoula.

Video Problem Fixed

Καλημέρα! (Pronunciation: Kaliméra! Translation: Good Morning!)

Thanks to those of you who gently pointed out that the videos in yesterday’s post could not be viewed.

You’d think that someone who grew up professionally doing software testing and frequently and self-righteously foments about app and website developers not testing their products would, himself, be better at testing his own blog posts. Oh well, I guess I start my Greek day with a lesson in hubris.

I’ve corrected the videos so they should be viewable to all. Thanks for tuning it. Hazel James out.

A Passage of Time

Given all that’s happened aboard Hazel James recently, I think it best to organize and annotate, illustrate, and “video-ate” our recent 543 nautical mile (625 land-based mile) passage from Gaeta, Italy to the harbor and town of Benitses on the island of Corfu, Greece.

Our track from Gaeta to Corfu

While the overall distance we “sailed” (i.e., sailed, motored, and—yes—floated) was 543 nautical miles, the as-the-crow-flies distance is only 300nm between Gaeta and Corfu, and—if we were to sail directly with perfect wind and weather, and no deviations—the distance would have been 470nm. Also, even with some steaming (motoring) our average speed was a pokey 2.5 knots (nautical-miles per hour). As reference, in my Atlantic crossing last year, with no motoring and some becalms, my average speed was 4.5 knots.

Oh well, that’s the name of the game of our brand of cruising and exploring. We made the most of the time and it turned out being a very deep experience for Rhett and me.

If you were following along on my more-or-less daily satellite posts from the passage, you’ll probably recognize them below in italics. After each of these missives I’ve added some additional content and context, including pictures and videos that I can’t do via satellite.

One other note is that our 10-day passage was by far Rhett and Sunny’s longest in duration. Previously Rhett’s longest passage had been 6 days from Beaufort, North Carolina to Hyannis, Massachusetts. Although that passage was a bit longer distance, this was a good endurance test for her.

Hope you enjoy!…

And they’re off!

Day 1, Tue May 23, 2023, 1224 ship’s time
40° 41’N, 014° 07’E – Between Gaeta and Naples
43 of 543nm to Corfu, Greece

Good start to the passage. We slipped HJ’s moorings at 0800 local and departed Base Nautica Flavio Gioia marina. If you’re looking for a diversion, Google the mariner Flavio Gioia. It’s an interesting story. There’s lots of local pride that he’s the inventor of the magnetic compass but that’s suspect…more likely a Chinese invention. It seems though that Flavio may have invented the compass card (the flat disk that reads north, south, etc.) and also dampening the movement of the card by suspending it in oil.

It’s going on noon local as I write this and after a slow start with light and variable winds we’ve now got 5-10 knots of wind south-southwest under almost cloudless skies and 20° C (68° F). We’re on a starboard tack close reach and making 4.0 knots with a COG (Course Over Ground) of 150° True. The sea state is a virtual millpond. All in all, a beautiful day to start the passage.

Napoli (Naples) is off our bow at a range of 25 nm. We’re hoping to pass between mainland Italy/Naploli and Isola d’Ischia late afternoon and then make Isola d’Capri around sunset. That’s the plan but we’ll see how it plays out.

Onboard, all systems are working well. Rhett and Sunny just woke from a nap, we’ll have a midday meal soon then I’ll try to “turn flukes” and get some shut-eye. While this coastal sailing is interesting and beautiful (as compared with offshore sailing), we’ll need to keep more vigilant watches—especially around the Port of Napoli and Capri. There’s lots of commercial and cruise ship traffic and the potential for small fishing boats not running AIS.

Thanks to all who are keeping track of our progress. I was telling Rhett this morning that while on my solo transatlantic sail, it was so comforting to know that others were checking in on me and curious as to how we were doing. FWFS. Hazel James out!

The last day or two before embarking on a passage tend to be crazy. I always tell myself I should slow down and sleep a lot and prepare mentally but that never happens. We always seem to be running around the town to provision Hazel and consumed by last-minute boat projects. It’s even more so when your crossing between countries and have to deal with customs and immigration exit formalities.

The couple days before departure from Gaeta were no different—actually accentuated because we’d stripped HJ bare of food in the fall and she hadn’t been sailing since. When you get right down to it, you never quite feel like you’re ready to slip the moorings but at some point you’ve got to say that it’s good enough and just go.

The night before we slept fitfully given the excitement of the passage and we were up before the sun to unbag the sails, cover the forepeak berth (V-berth) where we sleep when not sailing, and perform other prepatory chores. As we worked away, Rhett and Sunny below decks and me above, the light in the east grew and blossomed into a glorious sunrise that bode well for our embarkation.

Sunrise on our last morning in Gaeta.
The captain gives a salute as we exit the marina.

In addition to the picture above, here’s a nice video that Rhett took of our departure. In the video you’ll note the nearby joint Italian and US military base. While the USS Mount Whitney was berthed there when we arrived in Gaeta several weeks ago, one morning we found the Mount Whitney gone and several days later the troop carrier in the video showed up (for obvious reasons, military ships don’t announce their arrivals and departures). In the video, if you listen carefully to “Ox” our auxiliary diesel engine chugging away you’ll hear the cooling seawater being returned to the sea (that intermittent whooshing sound). Remember it because it foreshadows an upcoming incident on our passage.

USS Mount Whitney several weeks prior.

When I was a sailing instructor during my college summers (trust me…a good gig if you can get it), my sailing buddies and I joked about “boat bites,” those mysterious cuts and bruises that show up when you spend a lot of time banging around on small boats. When Rhett joined me aboard, we resurrected the term as it’s as applicable for 15-25 foot lake sailboats of my youth as it is for ocean sailing yachts.

As an adult, I’ve come to realize that alcohol and boat bites have a funny relationship. While today I use alcohol (isopropyl alcohol) to help heal boat bites, back in my halcyon sailing instructors days, alcohol (ethyl alcohol that is) was often the culprit. Yes, some were honestly obtained in the light of day, while other boat bites just sort of showed up mysteriously the morning after a “major rager.”

Regarding adult boat bites, in Hazel’s saloon Rhett and I found that the initial step going up the companionway was exactly at shin height and also the source of 80% of our boat bites. While individually none of the bruises were bad, as the Ionian Greeks say, “Bean by bean the sack fills.” The problem was that each bruise happened at the same place on the shin and, while each was minor, they’d add up until blood was spilled. Finally, before my transatlantic sail, I installed some padding (“gunnel guard” for you yachties out there) to cushion our inevitable clashes with Hazel’s saloon step.

Hazel’s saloon looking aft. Note the white padding around the first companionway step to obviate boat bites. Note, that first step is on the engine hatch (“Ox” lives in his cave below the wooden box).

I say all of this about boat bites because although it’s easy enough to pad one place below decks, above decks is a veritable minefield of sharp objects—all just waiting to pounce and take a little nip. In addition, whenever possible I like to sail barefooted. I have a better feel for the boat and for any lines underfoot. Now when I’m totally in sync with Hazel, I’m pretty good at avoiding those pesky on-deck “ankle biters.” However, on our first days out of Gaeta and having not sailed for six months my muscle memory of all things on Hazel’s deck had slipped…and I paid the price.

“Boat bites” on both sets of toes from the first couple days of sailing.

Paring mode

Day 2, Wed May 24 2023, 2234 (10:34 p.m.) ship’s time
40° 10’N, 014° 27’E – Between Naples and Island of Capri
82 of 543nm to Corfu, Greece

“It is true the longest drouth (sic) will end in rain,
The longest peace in China will end in strife.”
—Robert Frost, On Looking Up By Chance At The Constellations

Frost penned that poem in 1923. Today he probably would have chosen a different country to make his point, but I’m sure you get the gist. It’s 10:45 p.m. here and 20 hours ago I was thinking about those lines of poetry as we waited for wind. The thing is that I knew the lines, knew the context—be patient, and the longest calm will be punctuated by wind—but I couldn’t remember the Frost poem that contained the couplet. Fortunately we were close enough to land the next morning for internet access, and a quick search gave me the poem’s title and I could then look it up in my dad’s well-worn book of Robert Frost poems that I keep onboard. Ah the bouquet as it’s spine cracked open, a mix of bookbinder’s glue, ever so slightly moldy paper and ink. The olfactory bookmark of my childhood home and memories of weekend trout fishing trips with my dad, driving the backroads of Pennsylvania in his 1970s Chevy Chevette, listening to cassette tapes of Robert Frost reading his own poetry.

When Rhett and I decommissioned Hazel last fall and prepared her for winter, we began to think long and hard about what we didn’t need aboard our 31 by 9-foot home. Anything that hadn’t been used last cruising season was an obvious target for our paring. Also the prodigious amounts of food we kept onboard (enough to make a prepper envious) had to go. Fortunately, all that was unopened could be donated. This spring, as we recommissioned Hazel we continued the paring process. We ended up mailing a box of things home, some keepsakes, and clothes and books that we weren’t wearing or reading but couldn’t part with. I seriously considered mailing my dad’s Frost book home but just couldn’t do it. As the book’s index guided me to page 268 and read On Looking Up By Chance At The Constellations in its entirety, I was happy about my choices. It’s good to give up some material things and move forward, it’s also good to protect the core and remember.

The Mediterranean wind tends to be diurnal. The nights and mornings are very calm and late-morning the day’s wind starts to build. While that pattern is great for daysailing from harbor to harbor, it’s a challenge for the multi-day passages we like to do. Fortunately last night was calm enough that when the evening wind died, we just dropped all sails, set AIS and radar guards and alarms as our electronic eyes, and went to sleep letting Hazel bob around all night. Tonight looks like it will be the same. When I started writing we were ghosting south with the moo; illuminating our wake in light airs under spinnaker. Midway through this post the wind dumped out totally so I doused the chute and here we sit. Last night we were about 10 nm north of Isola di Capri. Tonight, Capri is about 30 nm north and astern of us. Besides the tempting sacrilege of firing up the diesel and motoring, there’s nothing to be done but be patient and know that the longest calm will end in wind.

Fair winds and following seas. Hazel James out.

It’s funny, in rereading my post above I talk a bit about food. If anything on this passage I wish we would have had more food. If we had chosen not to steam (motor) at all we just might have run out on the passage. It was an odd thing to be worried about and made me think about how, in general and in my life, how lucky I am to not worry about where my next meal is coming from.

A beautiful sunrise at 0533 ship’s time.

Around the time of this post we passed Naples and Mount Vesuvius (that blew its top in AD 79 and inundated Pompeii). Interesting etymology we learned about Naples from our land voyaging there: “Naples” is our Americanization of the Italian “Napoli” and Napoli was originally a Greek settlement (a “polis”). Given it was on the outskirts of Greek expansion (on the Greek frontier if you will) it was the “new city” or, in Greek, Neopolis—eventually shortened to Napoli.

Capo (Cape) Miseno to the left, city of Naples in the middle (the white buildings on the horizon), and—through the haze—the faint outline of Mount Vesuvius toward the right of the picture. We’re sailing south with a low late-day sun in the west so the shadow of the mast is upon the spinnaker.

First watch

Day 4, Fri May 26 2023, 0034 (12:34 a.m.) ship’s time
39° 01’N, 015° 00’E – Between Islands of Capri and Stromboli
169 of 543nm to Corfu, Greece

We’re coming up to eight bells, first watch aboard Hazel James. First watch being the four-hour sailor’s shift from 8:00 p.m. to midnight, and eight bells being the end of the watch. Hazel has a bronze ship’s bell and when we’re both awake and we remember at the top and bottom of the hour, we have fun keeping track of the time with the bell. A traditional watch starts at the top of an hour with eight bells (signifying the end of the preceding watch). At the bottom of the hour of the first hour of the watch, one bell is rung. At the top of the second hour two bells are rung, and so on until eight-bells is reached at the top of the last hour of the watch. At midnight (now in 11 minutes) we’ll be into the middle watch (since it’s through the middle of the night, from midnight to 4:00 a.m.) Rhett and Sunny are fast asleep below decks so I’ll refrain from sounding the bell.

As if at the end of a giant Aeolian exhale, the mild breeze that had allowed us to make a couple knots under spinnaker, dumps out and the chute collapses I try a couple techniques to re-inflate it but no luck. It’s flat line, there just isn’t enough wind. I make my way to Hazel’s foredeck to snuff the chute (pull the spinnaker sock down and over the spinnaker and bring the whole thing down). We’ve been sailing south toward the Strait of Messina and the first quarter moon is low in the west, off the starboard beam. It will set in an hour or so. For now it’s giving me plenty of light to do what I need to do on Hazel’s bow. As I finish up my work and turn to head back to the cockpit, a dark shape on the coachroof in the dim moonlight catches my eye. It’s roughly the size and shape of a crumpled hand towel. “What’s that?” I think. A tidy boat is important as little things out of place can be clues to bigger problems brewing. It’s not like me to leave a random hank of rope or rag on deck. If it were silvery and we were in the Atlantic I’d think it was a flying fish that stranded itself on deck (a common occurrence), but I’ve never seen a flying fish in the Mediterranean and this shape is dark. I pick it up assuming inanimacy and I’m startled when it moves, sluggishly. Instinctually I drop whatever it is I’m holding and it falls on the deck with a soft thud, a thud muffled by feathers. It’s a bird and it’s long overlapped wings indicate he night jar family—aerial fly catchers, definitely not a sea bird. We’re 30 miles offshore, it must have gotten disoriented, wandered from land, and—running on fumes—pulled off a night time “carrier landing” on HJ’s deck. It’s black eyes are tiny and alert, but passive. Hey look like two drops of balsamic vinegar floating in olive oil. Being too weak to fight, it’s resigned to whatever comes next.

All I can do is keep it warm through the night and hope it’s strong enough to fly to shore in the morning, or maybe it will stay on board with us until we reach Messina, 95 miles off our bow. That is assuming she makes it through the night. I find a dry towel, wrap her gently and tuck her under Hazel’s dodger.

Funny, I started writing this post not sure what I would write about. I had a couple ideas but nothing firm. Then, as I’m writing this avian avatar drops on our deck and he beginning of a story emerges. Who knows if the ending will entail a sunrise flight, a stowaway to Messina, a burial at sea, or something else.

Stay tuned…and so will I. The wind is still dumped out, there’s no use trying to sail, the Moon has set, and the lack of moonlight lets the stars shine. The Milky Way is a ribbon, wrapping this gift of night. I’m headed to the warm saloon and a couple hours of warm sleep, hopefully I’ll wake to wind. As I climb down the companionway steps and into the warm saloon, I pass our feathered friend, insulated by the towel and (I hope) sleeping.

Fair winds and following seas.

Passing the Isle of Capri was a thrill. The pilot books rightfully listed it as the most famous island in Italy. While we had originally intended to thread the needle between Punta Campanella on the mainland (near Sorrento) and the east end of Capri, we “called an audible” and elected to leave Capri to port and pass west of it. Given the light westerly winds we thought it best to avoid the wind shadow that would be downwind of Capri (i.e., the island blocking the wind).

Capri Ho!
Approaching Punta Carena on the west end of Capri.
Passing the Punta Carena lighthouse with iconic Capri rocks to the right.

All three of us (Rhett, Sunny, and me) knew that after we cleared Capri we’d be venturing offshore for about 100nm. Our next landfall would be as we approached the Isle of Stromboli and the Strait of Messina.

While Rhett and I were OK with this, Sunny was not so sure. While she loves the sailing, she’s not a big fan of the pee-pee-pad for “doing her business.” It’s a couple foot square piece of astroturf where she’s got to position herself and then cast all modesty to the winds.

As an aside, before sailing with Sunny I had always thought the term “astroturf” came from the Houston Astros baseball team and their pioneering use of artificial turf (kind of like the University of Florida Gators football team and their eponymous sports drink). However, after a couple voyages with Sunny aboard, I now believe the etymology of “astroturf” comes from the Jetson’s dog Astro (or, a jowly Rast-roh as he called himself). Over its 24 episodes, we never learned where in the world Astro did his business. Think about it—around that crazy floating apartment where George, Jane, Judy, and Elroy lived there was no grass.

While Sunny had been OK with the coastal sailing so far on the passage and had gotten in the swing of number-1 on the pad. Number-2 is a much bigger deal and she had been holding out hoping we’d return to land in time. However, as we put Capri astern and headed offshore Sunny plaintively sniffed the sea air with its fading traces of land and knew she had to take action—for her, it was now or never.

Sunny weighing her options as Capri recedes astern.

Suddenly, with a furtive sidelong glance, Sunny attempted the unthinkable—a mutiny on the high seas. She leapt from her bed, grabbed Hazel’s wheel and threw it hard to port in a desperate attempt for one last colon cleanse on terra firma. While the captain wrestled the helm from her, he ordered the ship’s sargent-at-arms to clamp her in irons. It was a close call but eventually order was restored aboard Hazel James.

Sunny the mutinous sea dog (aka, The Scofflaw Paw).

Fly on Little Wing

Day 6, Sun May 28 2023, 2035 (8:35 p.m.) ship’s time
37° 55’N, 016° 03’E – Transited Strait of Messina
275 of 543nm to Corfu, Greece

Some quick context:
1) We’ve been listening to a lot of Jimi Hendrix on this passage.
2) Rhett is a crazy animal person. “How crazy?” you ask? So crazy that she doesn’t like killing mosquitoes…not even in Maine—‘nuff said.

(Continuing from our previous post) after I put our crash-landed bird to bed under the dodger, in the folds of a towel, I turn flukes and get some sleep while our becalm continues. However, around 3:00 a.m. I wake to enough wind for sailing and don my foul weather bottoms, sea boots, and watch cap and fisherman’s sweater to fight back the nighttime chill. While the waterproof bib overalls were a bit of overkill for the temperature, they’d let me sit on the dewy cockpit cushions with impunity. As for the well worn, well loved, and ‘oft mended sweater, my parents gave it to me when I was in high school and they made a trip to Ireland. It’s now an old friend from the late 70s and one of my favorite possessions on Hazel.

Consumed with restarting my brain in the middle of the night, wind angles, and sail choices, I totally forget about our stowaway until I pass her on my way up the companionway steps. She doesn’t move…”Either sleeping or dead,” I think, “Regardless, there’s nothing more I can do now. If alive, resting is best.” After I get Hazel moving in the mild breeze, curiosity gets the better of me and I gently peel the towel off the bird’s back and folded wings. As an aerial flycatcher, I marvel at how long her wings are in relation to her body—so long that they cross at the base of her tail and her wingtips extend we’ll past her tail feathers. I see no whiskers around her beak as a nightjar should have (to guide insects down the gullet) so I revise my identification to some kind of European swift (related to our North American chimney swift). There’s no struggle, no movement, her eyelids remain closed. Finally, after an eternity, beneath her charcoal feathers I can see her back arch as she breathes. I breathe too, a sigh of relief.

Half an hour later I’m at the base of the mast coiling the halyards by moonlight and Rhett (who has been sleeping and has no idea about the bird on board) pops her head above the dodger from the cockpit and gives me a cheery “how are you doing?“ My sotto reply, “Good but keep quiet, and don’t make any fast moves.“ This, of course, confuses the half-asleep crew as we are miles from land and why in the world does it matter how loud she is or how she moves? To give her groggy brain one more disjointed statement to process I add, “Go get your reading glasses so you can see better up close and meet me on the companionway steps.” Five minutes later I’ve shown her the bird and recounted the whole story. While Rhett is immediately immersed in pity and compassion for this creature, we both agree there’s nothing more we can do but help it conserve its body heat and let it rest.

Rhett returns to her sleep as it’s my watch and I have time to think as the emerging crepuscular light heralds the sun. It occurs to me that “the bird” needs a name. Pretty quickly I’m reminded of the Hendrix tune “Little Wing” and when Rhett’s up for sunrise and her first question is, “How is the bird doing?” I report, “Little Wing hasn’t moved. That’s either a good thing or a bad thing.” Rhett immediately picks up on the nomenclature and the reference but we both agreed that an affectionate name implies emotional connection and that—miles from land with the shin of the boot of Italy just barely to the east—we were far from “out of the woods” with our little stowaway.

Over coffee we decided that water would be the next item on Little Wing’s hierarchy of needs. A land based bird straying 30 miles out to sea just had to be parched. I put some freshwater in a jar lid and we roused her. With some effort she opened her eyes but otherwise made no attempt to move. I thought to myself, “Not good. If this bird dies on our watch, Rhett will be crushed. Maybe I should have just left it on deck to fend for itself and hoped it was gone in the morning. Either flown away or washed off the deck it wouldn’t be my problem.” But I didn’t and now I had this bird on my hands that was too weak to stand or perch and a sailing partner beside herself and lamenting, “After I went back to bed I couldn’t sleep. All I could do was worry about and pray for the bir…” she stopped herself “I mean Little Wing. She’ll be OK, won’t she?” With that interrogation, my life was rewound 25 years to being the father of small nature-loving children and those children finding some abandoned springtime baby animal in the yard and asking the same question. There was no one best answer then and there’s still no good answer today. “Sure.” I reassured her, but the quaver in my voice belied my trepidation.

Although Little Wings eyes were open, she didn’t seem to notice the jar lid of water just under her beak. Rhett and I looked at each other and silently agreed that desperate times call for desperate measures. Without a lot of hope (I’m sure Rhett had enough hope for both of us) I gently pushed the back of her head forward and down so her beak would be in the water, careful to keep her nares above water so she could breathe. Unbelievably Little Wing startled, settled, and then her throat undulating as she drank. I was astonished; Rhett knew it all along as the answer to a prayer. Little Wing paused and then drank a few more times before losing interest. Perhaps her tiny belly was saited.

I know it’s threatening to birds and other animals if you approach them from above (the way a hawk or falcon would attack) so I nestled my cupped hands on either side of her and gently wriggled my pinkies between her and the towel. Instinctively her tiny toe claws gripped into my skin. Rhett had positioned herself on a cockpit seat in the sun and protected from the wind. As I transferred Little Wing from my hands to Rhett’s hands I was reminded of the hand blessing that our friend and officiant Lisa performed on our wedding day. Although the blessing was as poignant as it was exhaustive (these are the hands that will caress, etc. these are the hands that will offer comfort, etc. these are the hands that will…—you get the idea), I’m pretty sure the hand blessing was silent on, “These are the hands that will care for a lost and exhausted bird, 20 miles from shore in the Mediterranean Sea.”

Although the sun was well up by this time and the dodger was acting as a comfortably warm greenhouse, Little Wing began to shiver. My first thought, “Oh great, clearly the death shakes. It figures, after a little victory with the hydration and a ray of hope we’re going to lose her.” Still though maybe she was just chilled all the way to her little bird bones. I rigged a perch under the dodger with a dowel hoping she’d be more comfortable but she was still too weak to perch. Finally I suggested to Rhett, “Why don’t you hold her in your hands in the sun? Maybe the combination of your body heat and the direct sun will help her.”

As Rhett cooed and gushed that Little Wing was the most precious thing she had ever seen, I went below decks to make some oatmeal for breakfast. As I salted and heated the milk I thought, “Oh well, there are are worse ways to go than to be warm and being held by another living creature.” I was stirring oats into the white simmering mixture when I heard the startled cry from topsides…”She’s gone! She’s gone!” My first reaction…just as I had expected. I popped my head up through the hatch to find Rhett standing on the cockpit seat and thrusting her index finger in the general direction of land exclaiming, “There she is! She’s flying!” Through her ebullition, Rhett explained that Little Wing all the sudden just seemed to wake up in her hands. Little Wing looked around, looked at Rhett, took a wingbeat and landed clumsily on the edge of the cockpit. Rhett thought she was going to fall in the water so tried to grab her and she just took off, out over the water. Dumbfounded I asked, “Where?” Rhett pointed again and we both saw her dark shape silhouetted against the brilliant blue sky. Her wing beats and heartbeats propelling her east, into the morning sun and toward land. Her grace on the wing was breathtaking. While some species have evolved to do a lot of things passably well (a duck can fly, swim, dive, and walk), they are avian Jack’s-of-all-trades. As a swift however, Little Wing had evolved do to one thing, and to excel in that one thing, to fly. It was unbelievable that a being that couldn’t or wouldn’t stand minutes ago and appeared contented, nestled in Rhett’s warm hands, was now soaring as if the night before had all been a bizarre bird dream.

The whole rest of the day, Rhett had the biggest smile I have ever seen. Fly on Little Wing. Hazel James out.

While I had discovered “Little Wing” after my last post. The whole cliffhanger about her story was not contrived in the least. We had no idea what was going to happen to her. It was a bit of a challenge to try to convey what was going on onboard—how it looked and felt—without pictures (and while trying to sail a boat). It’s fun to now be able to fall back on some photographic evidence.

Here’s Little Wing the morning-after under the dodger and with the towel that had served as a blanket through the night unfolded. I had set the red dish of water in front of her and she’s eyeing it suspiciously.
Evidently, she just wanted white glove service. It was such a relief when she took her first sips.

Here’s a video of Little Wing drinking. If you look carefully, you can see her throat working.

If you’ve become a complete Little Wing junkie by this point here’s another video of her.

Here’s Rhett warming Little Wing in her hands and in the morning sun just moments before she decided it was her time to fly.

While Little Wing was our most delicate avian visitor, she wasn’t our only. We were probably that “baby bear’s porridge” distance away from land much of the time and that made us attractive to wayward land birds. We were close enough to land that birds were in range and far enough from land that, if they did fly by, they wanted a rest. We had 5-10 other birds that we knew of stop in for a quick breather (who knows how many visited in the middle of the night that we were never aware of). Whenever possible we gave them water as well.

A bird on the lifelines.

One afternoon we were in the cockpit and one landed on Hazel’s steering wheel, flitted around a bit and then flew into the saloon to check things out. We wondered if it thought, “It’s like a bird house in here but for people!”

Another on the cockpit coaming.

Here’s a video with Ox’s hatch raised (more foreshadowing) and an avian visitor getting a drink.


Day 9, Wed May 31 2023, 0109 (1:09 a.m.) ship’s time
38° 25’N, 017° 02’E – Between the Toe and the Boot of Italy
352 of 543nm to Corfu, Greece

OK, I’m a good person, but I’m not made of stone and there’s only so much I can take. At midnight local (an hour ago) after sitting becalmed the better part of the day and evening, and the rest of the night showing no respite in the forecasts, I decided to fire up “Ox” (our diesel engine) and start steaming toward our destination of Corfu, Greece at a range of 160 nautical miles. It’s well known that Aeolus, god of the winds, was kind enough to tie up all of Odysseus’ contrary winds in a bag and give them to Odysseus to ease his passage to Ithaca (Ithaca is about 80 nm south of Corfu, both islands are in Ionian Greece). Unfortunately, Odysseus’ crew became convinced that Odysseus was hiding treasure from them in the bag so they opened it and their ship was blown off course by the released contrary winds, further delaying their return home (our word “odyssey” comes from the name “Odysseus”). I say all this because I’m convinced that Aeolus tied up ALL our winds in a bag, not just the contrary ones. Oh well, it looks like if we can get to the Heel of the Boot of Italy the prevailing north winds that blow down the Adriatic Sea may give us a beam reach the final 60 or so miles to Corfu.

Some cool things we’ve seen the last couple days:
In the middle of the night, we sailed past the Island of Stromboli, about 35 nm north-northwest of the Strait of Messina. We’re running a bit low on food and we were hoping the island “delivered” its eponymous treat (perhaps some kind of Uber Eats for boats?). Unfortunately, no such luck. However, the island was billed as the first lighthouse in the world which seemed to us like a rather aggrandizing claim…until we were 10 miles out from it and saw the glow and the eruptions from the 3,000-foot peak of the active volcano! Unlike Vesuvius that obliterated Pompeii with a cataclysmic blast, Stromboli clearly sees its therapist regularly and releases its pressure gradually and continuously. Every 10 minutes or so, the pulsing orange glow from its peak would be punctuated by a spray of fire complete with red-hot cinder shooting high into the air. It was crazy to sail through the night past it and ponder what lies below the thin crust of Earth that we live upon. Crazy also that people live upon the island. Perhaps there’s something to the, “Better out than in” adage.

While I’m not sure if pigs can fly (swine flu not withstanding), the next morning and still near Stromboli we discovered that rocks can float. Every five minutes of sailing we come upon a cluster of white pumice stones just bobbing around in the Mediterranean. They ranged in size from a pea to a golf ball. The captain risked his life to collect as many as possible for stocking stuffers. Rhett saved a few for her next pedicure.

Next up was the Strait of Messina, once feared and much chronicled in The Odyssey. Today, the most important things for a small low-power boat like Hazel is to keep clear of the constant shipping traffic and to time the transit carefully. Although the open water tides in the Mediterranean are very mild, the Strait is a choke point between two seas, the Tyrrhenian to the north and the Ionian to the south, so during “the race” (the fastest flowing of the tides) the current can reach 4 knots (close to Hazel’s maximum steaming speed). In addition, there are numerous whirlpools and eddies, not unlike the East River in New York City, so care must be taken. Also, like the East River there are tons of ferries that run 24×7 between mainland Italy and Sicily. Fortunately given some favorable wind our timing when we reached the northern entrance to the Strait was excellent, at slack tide with the current just beginning to turn in our favor. The not so good news is that we reached the Strait at 3:00 a.m. and we transited in the dark. With Rhett at the helm, Ox pushing Hazel along, me with binoculars checking charts, AIS, and radar, and Rear Admiral Sunny sniffing longingly for the sweet smells of land, we were successful and at the other end, treated to a sunrise view of the snow capped, 11,000 foot Mount Etna on Sicily’s eastern coast. With that we were now in the Ionian Sea!

Sailing along the Sole of the Boot of Italy was gorgeous and we were hopeful that the morning’s perfect winds were a harbinger for what we’d find throughout the Ionian. Unfortunately, that has not panned out.

To the good, in the Ionian we have been treated to frequent turtle sightings and a couple big pods of dolphins.

Thanks for following along. We’re hoping that Ox’s rumble wakes Aeolus up and he bestows us with fair winds and following seas. Or, maybe he hid that bag of wind somewhere on Hazel and we just need to find and untie it. Hazel James out.

I’m generally circumspect about superlatives—the biggest, the best, the first, etc.—I think it stems from being so let down by the “largest ball of twine in the world” on a 1970s family road trip. So, when our pilot books said that the Island of Stromboli was perhaps the first lighthouse in the world, I scoffed. However, the consistent glow and every-10-minutes-or-so mini eruptions were just amazing. We were so fortunate to have approached it at night. During the day we would have just seen a puff of smoke hanging around the summit. It’s too bad that we couldn’t have gotten a picture of it at night. We were sailing slowly so the sun rose by the time we were very close to Stromboli.

While pizza for breakfast might sound crazy, who doesn’t like Stromboli at sunrise?
A selfie with Stromboli.

Again on the subject of exaggeration, we thought our pilot book was stretching the truth when it said to keep a sharp lookout for floating pumice stones around the volcanic Stromboli. But then, with Stromboli astern, we began to see a lot of “bubbles” on the surface of the water that—upon closer inspection—were not bubbles. They were pumice…floating rocks. We got to wondering how in the world it was formed and found out later on Wikipedia:

Pumice is created when super-heated, highly pressurized rock is rapidly ejected from a volcano. The unusual foamy configuration of pumice happens because of simultaneous rapid cooling and rapid depressurization. The depressurization creates bubbles by lowering the solubility of gases (including water and CO2) that are dissolved in the lava, causing the gases to rapidly exsolve (like the bubbles of CO2 that appear when a carbonated drink is opened). The simultaneous cooling and depressurization freeze the bubbles in a matrix. Eruptions under water are rapidly cooled and the large volume of pumice created can be a shipping hazard for cargo ships.

Like any good tourist, I had to get some for souvenirs.

No time for a makeshift net, trying to hand grab pumice. (Kids, don’t try this at home.)
Our haul. These will become stocking stuffers.

While you might think it dangerous to hang overboard in the middle of the sea, the captain took every precaution and—because were talking about foot care—the risk was worth the reward.

Transiting the Strait of Messina was another thrill..

While we transited the narrowest part of the Strait at night, we had pre-dawn light in the air as we exited the Strait. In this picture Hazel is sailing south and we’re looking north off her stern (her port quarter to be exact). Sicily is the land to the left and the Toe of the Boot of Mainland Italy to the right.

As you can imagine, the Strait of Messina is also a very busy commercial waterway. As we were exiting southbound we passed the northbound container ship Al Jasrah. It’s hard to imagine how big these behemoths are. Our AIS reported Al Jasrah as 368 meters in length (1,200 feet, almost a quarter of a mile) with a 51 meter beam (167 feet, five Hazel Jameses could easily fit end-to-end across Al Jasrah’s width), and a 15 meter draft (needs 50 feet of water just to float, deeper water than we’d ever anchor Hazel in).

Rhett with her foulies on for warmth and camera out for photo op as we prepare to pass Al Jasrah port to port.
Look at how high those containers are stacked. Each one of those containers becomes a tractor-trailer on the highway. Crazy

It was also fun to pass Mount Etna on Sicily. Although Sicily is as far south as you can get in Italy, Etna was snow capped in late-May.

Mount Etna. Note the smoke wafting from its summit (yes, it’s active).
It was a cool morning as we exited the Strait of Messina and sailed east around the Toe of the Boot. Gorgeous countryside and gorgeous sailing.
We were so impressed by the beauty of the Southern Italian coast. We’re anxious to visit when we eventually sail out of the Mediterranean.

Approaching and transiting the Strait was rather intense and meant that I was up the better part of the night. So that day, I made sure to get some good napping in. Sunny is always happy to help with that task.

Me on the starboard side settee (couch, the bow [front] of the boat to the left). Note the “lee cloth” at the bottom of the picture that keeps us from rolling out of our pilot berths (our sea beds). Also notice the bolster cushion removed from the left of the settee revealing a footwell to stretch out my legs. Finally, this berth gives me good access to instruments and radios (from left to right and top to bottom: mounted iPhone, chartplotter (GPS), radar, AIS, VHF radio, and short-wave radio).
Per previous picture, here’s the footwell on the port side. Sunny loves it as a little napping nook. While we Americans call it a “footwell” our Welsh sailing friends call it a “trotter box”—clearly a superior term.

While it’s hard to explain just how calm things can be at sea, this video is a good start. I tried blowing the conch at sunset to plead with Aeolus to send wind with no avail.

We were treated to several pods of dolphins which was heartwarming.

Thar she breeches! Some other sailors told us that the Eastern Mediterranean dolphins are the most aerial they’ve ever encountered—we have to agree.


Day 10, Thu Jun 01 2023, 0409 (4:09 a.m.) ship’s time
39° 34’N, 018° 17’E – Near the Heel of the Boot of Italy
445 of 543nm to Corfu, Greece

It’s 3:30 a.m. local (Italy) time and we’re just clearing the Heel of the Boot with our intended landfall and arrival island of Corfu, Greece somewhere off our starboard bow. The gentle 10 knot breeze is from the north and we’re making 3-4 knots on a port tack close reach under full fore ‘n aft sails (the traditional “white sails,” not the spinnaker). It’s a chilly night…likely our last full night on passage. I’m in thermal underwear, my trusty Irish fisherman’s sweater, foulie bottoms, and an orange knit watch cap (just like my childhood hero Jacques Cousteau used to wear). We’re sailing east-northeast and I’m wedged behind the dodger looking west, admiring the burnt orange waxing gibbous moon that has just set in the ocean behind us.

This afternoon, motoring through appetizers another becalm, the sea was so glassy that the reflections of the clouds were clearly visible in it. It was like a giant funhouse mirror had been laid on the ground in front of us. Now, with a bit of wind and without the protection of the Boot (and with several hundred miles of open Adriatic Sea to the north and upwind of us, giving the wind plenty of “fetch” over the water) the sea state is a bit lumpy. Still, I’ll take lumpy with wind over a becalm any day.

The shore lights of the Heel are visible off our port beam as is the comforting flash of the Santa Maria di Leuca lighthouse that makes the Heel of the Boot for mariners. With the moon’s glow fading, the stars that have had to play second fiddle to the moonlight all night come into their own. I love the perspective gained by gazing at the whitewash stripe of the Milky Way, then training our ship’s binoculars at it and being reminded that the “milk” is comprised of countless stars—and that’s just our galaxy, there are countless other galaxies beyond our Milky Way.

I think we’re past the climax of this play we call a sailing passage and into the denouement, where the loose ends are tied up and the meaning of the work is reflected and summarized. If I had to pick a moment of climax, it would be when we had engine troubles this afternoon requiring a deep dive into the spares locker and some grease under the fingernails. I suppose no one reaches Greece without some grease (that’s my Grecian Formula and I’m sticking to it). I think the meaning of the whole passage is that it’s been Rhett’s and my “stealthymoon,” that is a honeymoon—in the truest sense—that we never planned on, that just snuck up on us. Perhaps the third time really is a charm. On our first honeymoon, our couple day “minimoon” to the Florida Keys, I got COVID (and Rhett didn’t, go figure). On our second attempt, our “Amalfimoon,” we had. Great time but it was challenging to be in a place like the Amalfi Coast with day after day of rain. Now, as we can almost taste the fresh feta, we realize how special the week or so of pure solitude—just us—has been.

Of course we’ve got 65 nm of open water to go and a number of little Greek island to navigate around once we make landfall. Who knows what other plot twists that Poseidon may have in store for us.

Fair winds and following seas. Hazel James out.

A bit more on our “deep dive into the spares kit” from the post. When I started ocean sailing in Florida with daysails, I’d motor out of the intracoastal and into the ocean, shut off Ox and sail for a couple hours before returning home. After a couple times, I realized that the, “best sound of the day,” was no sound—that is, the unadulterated sounds of sailing that emerge when Ox rumbles to a halt. All that’s heard is the wind on the sails and the water on the hull.

When Rhett started sailing with me I told her that story and she loved it. Ever since, our tradition is that when either of us shuts down Ox, we say “Are you ready for the best sound of the day?” Well…in this case it wasn’t quite the best sound of the day. It was around noon and we were becalmed somewhere around the Heel of the Boot and steaming along under Ox’s power, when Rhett said, “Does the engine sound different to you?” I was up on deck attending to something and cocked my head, “No, sounds OK to me…I think.” A minute later I’m back in the cockpit and notice that—yes—Ox does sound different. Good heads-up call by Rhett to notice those little things. We took a glance over the transom at Ox’s exhaust pipe and grimaced. Seawater was not exiting as it should, thus causing the perceptible change in Ox’s rumble. If we didn’t shut Ox down, in another minute or two we’d hear the warning buzzer that he was overheating. To preempt that, I jumped into the companionway and pulled the knob to shut off the fuel supply and thus shut him down. Rumble, rumble, slower rumble, slower and slower rumble, finally…silence. What was normally the best sound of the day, in this case was definitely not the best sound of the day.

When he’s working as he should, Ox takes in seawater via a pump (the raw water pump), pumps it through a heat exchanger (like a car’s radiator). In the heat exchanger, the hot antifreeze solution (aka, freshwater) that circulates throughout the engine block is cooled by the seawater. The seawater then cools the exhaust and exits via the exhaust pipe on the transom. Something was wrong with the raw water system.

I lifted Ox’s hatch and pretty quickly realized that the entire raw water pump had failed. This could be really bad news as at times its just an impeller that has gone bad and is a minor problem to fix. Fortunately though I had an entire spare raw water pump on board so we could fix things relatively easily.

Engine hatch down.
Hatch raised exposing Ox. Raw water pump is behind the small pulley (wheel) to the lower left.
Removing the old raw water pump to diagnose the problem. In case anyone thinks that the yachting life is nonstop glamour and leisure, note the knee pads.
The raw water pump removed and opened. The “impeller” looks good but the pinion (that drives the impeller via a belt from the crankshaft) is stripped.
Close up of the rubber impeller for those grease-monkeys who are interested. A new impeller is an easy fix. With the stripped pinion, it’s a whole new pump or nothing.
The spares kit (or spares locker) is under the starboard forepeak berth. To get at it we have to move all sorts of crap that we store in the forepeak when sailing.
Much of “that crap” ended up on the starboard settee, held in place by the lee cloth.
Happy captain! Found the spare pump in the spares locker.
Success! Ox fired back up and water spitting out of the exhaust pipe. The captain felt good about that one. (Doesn’t every boat have a Steal Your Face sticker on the transom?)
Relaxing in the cockpit after our fix.
After another slow and cold night (note the sea boots), getting ready for a sunrise.
Sunrise after sailing wing-on-wind all night (or “goose winged” as the English say). Rhett contemplating the coming day.
Another view over the sun-hungry solar panels and between the stays’l and main. On passage, the ship’s batteries are at their most discharged in the early morning (after powering the ship’s systems all night with no sun). The solar panels are anxious to get to work and drink in the sun as soon as it’s a bit higher in the sky.

The “stealthymoon” that I talked about in the post was a fascinating occurrence. On passage, Rhett and I did a good job just letting things happen and not getting hung up about how fast we were moving (or, in some cases, not moving!). Going into the passage we didn’t think about it like a honeymoon but, in the hours and days of seclusion, the honeymoon-concept snuck up on us and gently enveloped us. We laughed, we joked, we were together—just us. After our “minimoon” in the Florida Keys (interrupted by COVID), our “Amalfimoon” (with its challenging weather and us surrounded by other people), this “stealthymoon” was just what we needed—the third-time really was a charm.

A beautiful thing about a passage is the focus required. The three rules I’ve come up with for passage-making are: 1) take care of yourself, 2) take care of the boat, 3) keep the boat moving in, generally, the right direction. Oh…and by the way…rule zero (the most important), don’t freak out. Everything else is secondary and takes a backseat, or gets thrown in the trunk not to be bothered with until back on land. With this in mind, the end of a passage is always bittersweet. While dry land, hot showers, and fresh food are alluring—along with those pleasures comes everything else: bills, emails, immigration and customs, phone calls. As Three Dog Night sung so eloquently…

If I were the king of the world
Tell you what I’d do
I’d throw away the cars and the bars and the war
Make sweet love to you (Sing it now)
Joy to the world
All the boys and girls
Joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea
Joy to you and me

Three Dog Night, “Joy to the World,” 1970

The End / The Beginning

Day 10, Thu Jun 01 2023, 2213 (10:13 p.m.) ship’s time
39° 47’N, 019° 56’E – Anchored in Vourlais, Corfu
527 of 543nm to Corfu, Greece

More to follow after we get some rest but a fantastic last day of the passage today. Although we chose to motor a couple times through some calms, Aeolus rewarded us with an honest breeze to deliver us to Corfu under spinnaker, stay’syl, and main. Ere anchored out tonight on the north end of the island, and will make our way to the marina tomorrow.

Must sleep. FWFS. HJ out.

It was fantastic that our last day before Grecian landfall was an excellent sailing day. We had a north wind with about 8-11 knots on the beam. We could sail with full canvas on Hazel (mains’l, stays’l, and spinnaker). It’s a lot of sail to carry and you have to watch carefully lest the wind build overpower Hazel. From a range of about 25 nm we started seeing Greek Islands. The first was Othonoi, the westernmost point in Greece. That first sighting of land is always so exciting, even more so when it’s a new country that you’ve never sailed to before. Interestingly, the mainland east of Othonoi (behind Othonoi in our case) is not Greece, it’s the country of Albania (that we’ll be visiting soon).

A bulk freighter steaming south with the island of Othonoi behind it.
A selfie as we get closer!
Next the limestone cliffs of the north shore of Corfu hove into view.
The mountains of Albania in the distance.
The captain does a victory dance in the rigging.

A good video of our final day’s sail here. You get a sense of the power of the spinnaker, mains’l, stays’l combo in mild winds by looking at HJ’s speed and the way she’s moving.

Later that evening we anchored in a small bay in North Corfu and the next morning (a very still morning) we ended up motoring the final 15 nm to Benitses Marina and the village of Beniteses.

We steamed down the east side of Corfu, between the island of Corfu and the mainland (Albania and Greece). As we did we passed the “big city” of Corfu Town. It was funny because on our passage, our friends Donna and Steve emailed us about their sailing in Greece and how the hydrofoils kind of freaked them out. As we approached Corfu Town, we saw a boat approaching…fast…I looked at the AIS and it said the vessel was moving at 30 knots and it was a vessel type I’d never seen before. As it approached we realized it was indeed a hydrofoil. Crazy…

Cruise ships in Corfu Town.
Hazel in the Benitses Marina flying the Greek courtesy flag in her starboard rigging.
Here’s a sense of what Hazel’s saloon looks like after a passage. Even with all the mess, you can probably guess the his and hers sides of the saloon.
And after Rhett’s magical clean-up and organization.
Me on the marina quay on our first night with the town’s lively taverna scene behind us.
Celebrating a passage slowly done but well done!

Fair winds, following seas, and Happy Birthday to Rhett! on this June 10th.


Ahoy! After several hectic days in Gaeta, Italy starting to recommission Hazel James, we treated ourselves to a nine-day “Amalfimoon” (belated honeymoon in the Amalfi Coast). We then returned to Gaeta, and spent another week finishing HJ’s recommission, trying to figure out all the formalities required to enter Greek waters at least somewhat legally and re-provisioning her with food for us—we think we are ready to embark early tomorrow morning.

Our current plan (and hope) is to sail non-stop to Corfu, Greece in the Northern Ionian Sea…off the coast of Albania. It’s about a 500 nm sail. Although we’ll be coastal sailing a good bit of the time and will probably have some cellular internet signal, please keep track of our progress on the HJ Sailing home page. We’ll try to make daily satellite postings of what’s going on (as I did during my transatlantic sail one year ago).

Hazel’s recommissioning and re-provisioning has gone well. Of course the proof will be in the pudding when we start sailing tomorrow. It’s amazing the complexity of a simple boat like Hazel. I walk by big yachts and shake my head, amazed at what it must take to keep them running.

Me doing some work on the foredeck.
Giving the mast and rigging a thorough inspection. The port spreader boot had chafed through so I needed to do some high-altitude sewing.
Finished with the work aloft!

In October last year, we left Hazel with no food onboard so re-provisioning her has taken a bit of time. The old medieval backstreets of Gaeta have some wonderful markets.

Via dell’ Indipenza in Gaeta.

One fun thing that happened before our Amalfimoon started with us asleep on HJ and about 11 p.m. on a weeknight we were awoken by car horns, fireworks and general mayhem that stretched long into the night. The next morning we found out that the Naples football (soccer) team had won the championship of Italy. It was a huge deal given that they’ve only won it two other times and that usually it’s the rich teams from the north of Italy that win. Although that night was a couple weeks ago, all the towns in the area are still decked out with the team’s colors of sky blue and white.

Now that’s a devoted Neapolitan fan!
More fans.
Rhett in front of an official team store in the Naples Centrale train station. Note the line of people!
Did I tell you I had a chance to celebrate with the team?

If you recall, it rained, rained and rained on our wedding weekend…everyone told us that it was good luck, and then I came down with COVID on day 2 of our aborted “minimoon” right after the wedding. Who knows what that means but I will tell you that it also rained and rained during every day of our Amalfimoon. We made the best of it though and took every opportunity of dry sky to hike and explore.

A rare moment of blue sky with rain clouds looming.
Hiking up and up.
Lemons all over the Amalfi Coast.
I enjoyed showing Rhett the magic of Italy.
The forum in Pompeii.
Rhett doing her beast Abbey Road album cover in Pompeii. If you look closely, you can see chariot wheel ruts…crazy.
Rhett at a Pompeiian fast food joint.
View of Sorrento from our hotel room.

That’s all for now. We’ve got to get to bed and up early to start our sail. Again, keep track of our progress and daily satellite posts on our home page.

Fair winds and following seas! Hazel James bound for the toe of the boot and on to Greece.

British Isles Part III: Titanic Hubris

adjective : having great magnitude, force, or power
adjective : of or containing the element titanium
noun : a family of giants in Greek mythology who were believed to have once ruled the earth, they were subsequently overpowered and replaced by the younger Olympian gods under the leadership of Zeus
noun : a luxury British cruise-liner that struck an iceberg near Newfoundland on its maiden voyage on the night of April 14-15, 1912 with the loss of 1,513 lives

noun : Overbearing pride or presumption; arrogance
noun : (in Greek tragedy) an excess of ambition, pride, etc., ultimately causing the transgressor’s ruin

While this post focuses on our tour of Belfast’s Titanic Museum, the pairing of Greek words in the title foreshadows our looming but ever-evolving cruising plans to sail the Greek Ionian and Aegean Seas this summer.

“Titanic Hubris” also links to our British Isles Part I post, given that the Lusitania (highlighted at the end of the post) served as Titanic’s template ship. Although Lusitania’s hull could have nested within Titanic’s hull (given Titanic was about 100 feet longer), Titanic’s timeline nests within Lusitania’s:

1906 Lusitania commissioned
1912 Titanic commissioned
1912 Titanic sunk
1915 Lusitania sunk (by a German submarine)

While on the subject of linkages forwards and backwards, the Titanic story also ties to our most recent post “Troubles”, as the Belfast shipbuilding firm of Harland and Wolff that built Titanic was virulently anti-Catholic. “At Harland and Wolff it was not unknown for workers [from their all-Protestant workforce] to paint on the sides of ships under construction the words ‘NO POPE’ in letters ten feet high or more,” writes naval historian David Allen Butler.

We also have an Italian connection in this post, as the Italian-Irish radio inventor and electrical engineer Guglielmo Marconi figures prominently in the story. Marconi’s father was Italian nobility and his Irish mother, Annie Jameson, was the granddaughter of the famous distiller John Jameson. Fitting, given that Hazel James wintered in Italy, patiently awaiting her crew’s return.

Even before the 1997 eponymous film, Titanic occupied such a place in popular culture one could wonder what else could be said about it. It turns out…lots. To me—as we wandered the comfortable Titanic Museum, far from the frigid, churning open ocean—it was the “what-ifs” I found most fascinating. If it weren’t for a handful of things that could have gone either way, 1,500 passengers and crew wouldn’t have drowned; conversely, if it weren’t for a handful what-ifs that broke to the good, 700 souls wouldn’t have been rescued.

What I learned most from our museum tour is that the Titanic tale is the story of a collision. But—like the proverbial “tip of the iceberg” (where only 1/10th of an iceberg is visible above the sea surface)—what occupies our collective consciousness is the collision between Titanic’s starboard side and a massive iceberg. What’s just as fascinating, less visible and below the waterline is the collision between communications technology and hubris.

The Titanic.

At the time of Titanic’s first and only voyage, Guglielmo Marconi and his Marconi Company had a near monopoly on radio and Titanic (as well as most other passenger ships sailing the North Atlantic) was outfitted with a Marconi radio installation and staffed by Marconi Company operators. Like a modern binary computer compiling programming instructions into a series of ones and zeros, to transmit a radio message in the early 20th century, the sending radio operator would encode a text message into a series of Morse Code “dots” and “dashes” (short and long sounds) separated by short and long pauses. The receiving radio operator would then decode the signals and silences into letters and words.

Guglielmo Marconi in 1902

What’s very different from later radio technology is that those early radios used a single “channel” to transmit and receive. Therefore, all messages transmitted by a ship or a shore-based “station” (a radio installation) could be received by all other stations (provided a trained radio operator was monitoring the station). Finally, given the distance limitations of early radios, when a transatlantic ship was in the middle of its passage it could not directly contact shore-based radio stations. For a ship crossing the northern North Atlantic ocean from east to west (as Titanic was doing), the first North American station that could be contacted was Cape Race, Newfoundland. (Incidentally, not far from Gander, Newfoundland where the musical Come From Away is set. And the proximity between Cape Race and Gander is not coincidental given their position in the [literal] middle of the ocean).

Cape Race’s position in the North Atlantic Ocean.
Another view of Cape Race with Titanic’s track.

Ship-based radio was a novelty in the early 20th century (similar to internet access on cruise ships 10 or 20 years ago) and a passenger ship’s radio was used to transmit and receive both official messages for the ship’s captain and officers, as well as messages and stock market reports for wealthy first class passengers. Radio operators were highly trained and skilled as they needed both Morse Code fluency and the technical skills to tune, troubleshoot, and repair the temperamental early radios. As such, each ship had only one or two radio operators onboard, and radios were not required to be monitored 24×7. Radio operators had their own lingo and fraternity (similar to PC tech guys in the early days of the personal computer). As an example, they would often jocularly refer to each other as “Old Man” when hailing in their radio transmissions.

Reconstruction of a ship’s radio room from the early 20th century. On the desk to the right, note the Morse Code transmitter keys; on the left, note the headset. It’s dizzying to think how much communications technology has advanced in a little over 100 years.

While there were many interactive and multi-modal exhibits in the museum—ranging from the ship’s design and construction, its impact on the Belfast and Irish economy, and (of course) its fateful voyage—it was the simple transcripts of the radio transmissions that I found most fascinating. Given the limitations of Morse Code, messages were concise, to the point, and often heavily abbreviated (not unlike text messages of today). In addition, receiving radio operators logged all messages so a complete record survives the tragedy. As I stood reading in the cool, dark, safe and comfortably carpeted museum space, it was hard to imagine the emotion, panic and dread that must have been just below the surface of the Morse Code messages. Here is the first transcript (I’ll explain some intricacies after)…

The bottom-line is that on the afternoon and early evening of April 14, 1912, Titanic had received reports of pack ice and icebergs in its vicinity. At 9:30 p.m., Titanic had thanked the ship Masaba for its ice report. However, at 11:00 p.m. the ship Californian which was likely only 10-20 miles from Titanic reported that it had stopped engines because it was surrounded by ice. It’s likely that shortly before the Californian’s transmission, Titanic had just come into radio range of Cape Race, Newfoundland.

Given that Titanic was barely in radio range of Cape Race, the Cape Race Morse Code signals would have been barely audible. Also, the Titanic’s radio operators would have likely had a backlog of personal messages that first class passengers wanted sent to friends and family in the US. Given the Californian was relatively close to Titanic, its signals would have been deafeningly loud as compared to Cape Race’s signal. It’s easy to imagine a tired and perhaps grumpy Titanic radio operator at 11:00 p.m. trying to transmit a backlog of vanity messages and having their receiver headset volume turned up to its loudest to hear the faint Cape Race signal hundreds of miles away. Then, the blasting transmission of the Californian drowns out and “steps on” the Titanic’s transmission “mid sentence” with Cape Race and forcing the Titanic operator to retransmit what was interrupted. The Californian sends, “WE ARE STOPPED AND SURROUNDED BY ICE.” Rather than Titanic thanking Californian for its nearby warning, Titanic responds, “SHUT UP! YOU ARE JAMMING MY SIGNAL. I AM WORKING CAPE RACE.” In later testimony, after the Californian radio operator received Titanic’s curt and discourteous reply, he switched off his radio and went to bed feeling that he had done his duty.

That use of the term “SHUT UP!” reminded me of today’s road rage and how easy it is to “say” online what we would never say to someone face-to-face. It also reminded me of the timeless quality that of online communications tending to lose meaning in their transmission. Was the Titanic operator saying “SHUT UP!” in a nasty, angry way…or a friendly, slap on the back “come on!” kind of way? If Titanic’s operator would have said “PLEASE BE QUIET OLD MAN” would the Californian operator stayed on station and heard the Titanic’s Mayday call that would soon follow? If Titanic’s operator would have relayed Californian’s message to the bridge, would the officer-of-the-watch considered slowing Titanic’s speed?

An hour later the Californian’s officers-of-the-watch saw what they thought were distress rockets from the direction of Titanic and reported their observation to Californian’s captain but the captain chose to not investigate (or to wake the radio operator). That’s a whole other story.

At 12:15 a.m. Titanic made its first distress call by transmitting the letters CQD. When you read “CQD” below, think SOS (Save our Ship) or Mayday (or a 911 call for the landlubberly of us). There’s more on CQD below but, for now, just remember that its a deadly-serious and not-to-be-ignored distress call.

Titanic’s distress calls and the replies from the ships Carpathia and Frankfurt.

A quick note on the above acronyms of CQD and OM: In the early days of radio, distress calling had not been standardized and for a short time CQD was informally adopted by radiomen as an abbreviation for “Sécurité Distress.” (Sécurité is French and pronounced secure-ah-TAY. “CQ” is a rough, phonetic translation of Sécurité). By now, you may have guessed that “OM” is an abbreviation of Old Man.

The ship Carpathia that received the distress call was about 60 miles from Titanic (much further than the radio-silent Californian). Carpathia’s journey through the night to Titanic’s last known position at top speed and in iceberg laden waters must have been harrowing.

The Carpathia that rescued Titanic’s survivors.
Titanic survivors the next morning on Carpathia’s deck.

Several other interesting endnotes to the tale:

First, you may have noticed in the transmissions above that on the day of the sinking, the weather in the vicinity was reported as clear and fine, with moderate and variable winds. While that sounds ideal, what it means is that not much of a sea would have been running (i.e., no big waves) therefore, at night icebergs would have been less visible since waves would not be breaking on their bulk. Lookouts aboard Titanic actually spotted the iceberg prior to the collision but the ship could not be turned fast enough to avoid collision.

Second, the Titanic was moving at 22 knots when it struck the iceberg. Although it doesn’t sound like much (25 land-based miles per hour), on the water, that’s fast. For reference you can water ski at about 18-20 knots and on Hazel James’ AIS transceiver we see the speed of all nearby container and passenger ships, and 22 knots is about the fastest that we’d see any large ship traveling—and those are modern ships, complete with a dizzying array of electronics and communications.

Third, and to bring us full-circle and back to the Lusitania, like the Lusitania the noble Carpathia that had rescued the Titanic’s survivors would also be sunk by a German submarine (Lusitania in 1915 and Carpathia in 1918).

As we think about all the what-ifs in this Titanic story, it’s easy to focus on the hubris of man over nature and and how horribly things went wrong. While there’s no denying that, we do have to balance that with the glass-half-full side of the story: 700 people survived. Without Marconi’s radio and without Carpathia’s radio operators monitoring the airwaves late into the night all lives aboard Titanic would have been lost.

Titanic below the waterline and before her 1911 launch.
For comparison, Hazel James’ diminutive propeller. (For boat nerds, a VariProp three-blade feathering propeller. When sailing, the blades “feather” to reduce hydrodynamic drag.)

Everything above (and above the waterline) in this post was drafted prior to starting our travels from the US back to Hazel James. On the flight as we winged eastward to Rome, Italy and reunification with our girl, I sanded the rough edges of the draft. As I paused to switch out my 80-grit for 120-grit sandpaper, I stepped back to widen the aperture and gain some perspective on the deeper meaning of the story (After all, it was the 9/10ths of the iceberg lurking underwater that ripped the gaping maw in Titanic’s starboard side.) As I pondered, it occured to me that indeed “All roads lead to Rome.” The “roads” being the countless learnings and epiphanies from our 2022 European travels, and “Rome” being Colleen and her life and times, and demise.

When Rhett and I returned from London to Florida on New Year’s Day 2023—exactly four months ago—and with our February 4 wedding day approaching fast, the guilt and remorse that I had felt about Colleen’s death executed and abrupt about face from its gradual retreat.

In the weeks after Colleen’s 2019 death and as I was trying to make sense of the nonsensical. A clinician-friend of mine explained a model of grief that I found immensely helpful amidst the chaos. He said to think of your grief and its triggering as a button in a box. In that box there is perpetual motion ball, ceaselessly caroming. In the weeks after the tragedy the ball is big relative to the box and thus the grief-button is almost constantly depressed. My friend urged me to trust that over time and with self care, the ball will slowly shrink and offer some respite from the constant triggering. However, he cautioned, don’t ever expect the ball to disappear completely.

While my friend’s model held true to my experience, he neglected to mention a regression or—more accurately—a re-expansion of the ball was possible. In this case likely precipitated by a return to land based life and Rhett’s and my upcoming union. In retrospect, I should have seen the surprise attack coming.

As Rhett’s and my wedding day approached, I conjured layers of “could-uh, would-uh, should-uhs”: all the ways I failed Colleen, the fact that our last goodbye was more afterthought than eternal farewell, a tide of memories of a daughter, sister and mother cut short.

My guilt surfaced in the inky and icy gloom like a Titanic survivor in an old-fashioned life jacket. I was moving forward and marrying another person that I love and exploring the world with that person. On one hand, it shows the highest respect to Colleen and her legacy that I’m living and loving and sailing the world an not taking one drop of life for granted. On the other hand, Rhett and I are the ones doing the enjoying and Colleen isn’t.

I was a bit panicked as we returned to the US in January as I had already felt the tremors of the backslide. I contacted my therapist and took the opportunity of being in Florida to see her several times during our time at home. Just last week I had my final session with her and as we were closing, my therapist suggested that although she was confident that I was not perfect throughout Colleen’s struggles, I also not forget the positives of Colleen’s and my voyage, the support that I gave Colleen, the fact that we were together and married until the end and not giving up on each other, her being the mother of the world’s best two children, the unabashed passion and fun that we shared for so many years, the victory of sobriety in her last year of life. It was my version of the 700 Titanic souls who survived.

As my therapist and I delved deeper into the folds of that mystery. It further occurred to me that another way I can honor Colleen is to apply the lessons of the past to my future with Rhett. As I’m sure Rhett would attest, I’m a work-in-progress. But—as the AA aphorism says—“Progress, not perfection.”

Fair winds and following seas, Hazel James out. Expect our next transmission from Italy as we plan our sail into Greek waters.


Although I like to think I have a “tell it like it is” blog-style and pull no punches, in this post I feel compelled to change a few names to protect the innocent. While typically “the innocent” are the people whose names have been changed, in this post we’ll switch it up since the innocents are Rhett and me. Granted, neither of us were angels when younger and we both trail an ever-so slightly checkered past behind us—however, given that we lived to tell the tales of those halcyon days of yore, it would be a shame for us to meet our end in some gangland style violence just trying to tell the story of our journey to Belfast.

Last October on a rainy inside-day in our Paris apartment we got to work planning our trip to Ireland. We’d heard that the ideal first trip to the Emerald Isle should include both south and north destinations (“south” being the Republic of Ireland) and “north” being Northern Ireland). That guidance meshed nicely with the quagmire of getting Sunny into the UK. While pets can’t fly into the UK they are welcome to enter via ferry or train (go figure). Therefore, we decided to fly into Dublin (which is in the Republic of Ireland and thus not in the UK) and then—after a side trip to Kinsale in the far south—take a train from Dublin to Belfast (and enter the UK as the train crossed the Republic of Ireland/Northern Ireland border). From Belfast, we’d take a ferry to Scotland. (If you missed our adventures in Kinsale or need a refresher on UK/non-UK nomenclature, etc. rewind a couple posts to this one.)

As we refined our Irish itinerary and our couple days in Belfast, we focused on the “Ts”—the Troubles and the Titanic. While there’s a Titanic Museum we could visit in Belfast to learn all we wanted to learn on that subject, getting a perspective on the Troubles proved a bit more elusive. Given the relatively recency and sensitivity of events, there was no single Troubles museum. Also, our desire was to be out in the streets, walking and seeing with our own eyes, rather than inside surrounded by sanitized exhibits.

The question then became, How to get that experience without the information being skewed or prejudiced by one side or the other? In our travels and in consuming travel media, Rhett had run across an innovative Israel-based tour company that began its operations by offering tours of Israel with both an Israeli and a Palestinian tour guide. Rhett was quite intrigued with the concept since, as a pair, the guides could present a balanced perspective of the conflict. Rhett had learned that this company had expanded into other ethno-nationalist conflict areas, including Belfast. While we were still in Paris Rhett reached out to this tour company to see if we could book with them in November. Rhett got a quick response to her email (from the CEO of the company no less) apologizing that they only host tours in Belfast during the more touristy summer months. Undaunted, Rhett asked if he knew of any independent guides we could contact who could give us a private tour with a balanced mindset. Long story short, through a contact of a contact, we were connected to Blake Davis (name changed) who seemed to check all our boxes (including having an advanced degree in conflict resolution). Rhett communicated with Blake via text and we made a date for him to pick us up at our hotel in his car and we’d do a 4-hour driving and walking tour.

We wanted the immersive experience and—in retrospect—we got what we were looking for, and quite a bit more.

Allow me to insert a quick sidebar here for some definitions of terms. My former work colleagues and clients know all too well that a consultant without two-column comparative table is akin to a boat without a rudder. Although I now label myself a recovering consultant, I just can’t help but dust off the table when it’s the best tool for the job.

Below is my personal summary on the two sides of the Troubles. Please bear in mind that this is my understanding so it may not foot 100% with generally accepted terms. Also remember that not all members of a religion necessarily think the same, and that—within both columns—there’s a wide spectrum of intensity of belief.

Good reference as you read

In Ireland and the UK these are “terms of art” with very specific meanings. Yes, an outsider could look at the situation and say, “Well both sides are ‘loyal’ to something, so aren’t thy both Loyalist?” However, that would be analogous to a European saying, “If a US Republican believes in democracy, doesn’t that make the Republican a Democrat?”

Now, back to our story…

Our journey from Dublin to Belfast started with a senic midday rail journey. As seaside towns and rolling hills with grazing sheep swept past our coach window, the vista lulled us into afternoon siestas. The gentle rocking of the train kept us sleeping through the border crossing (the train never stopped). When we boarded the train in Dublin we weren’t sure what to expect at the crossing. At the very least, we thought the train would make a quick stop and immigration officials from the Republic of Ireland/EU or Northern Ireland/UK would walk the aisles to take a cursory look at our passports. However—nothing—we dozed and the train rolled right on through the international border. In retrospect, I think that seamlessness led us to believe that the Troubles and the bifurcation of the island were a closed book of history.

We checked in to our hotel and the next morning after a hot and hearty breakfast of Irish oatmeal we were ready to meet Blake. When we stepped out of the hotel and into brisk the late-November air we found Blake waiting for us with a tidy compact SUV. He was neatly dressed in a light blue collared shirt, a royal blue crew neck sweater, and a navy blue wool overcoat. On his head was a checked dark gray and white tweed flat cap. As he introduced himself and we got to know each other with small talk on the street, his accent was charming and he displayed an interesting mix of seriousness and joviality. When he smiled (which was often), his well proportioned cheeks were deeply dimpled. Almost immediately, Rhett and I were at ease and excited for the day. A good thing since over breakfast Rhett had reminded me of our circuitous connection to Blake and that we had booked directly with him and not through any intermediary. Over our steaming oatmeal we had joked that it would be a long half day if we did not click with him.

Going into the day, all I knew about the Troubles is that they were a smoldering war started in the 1960s with Catholics on one side favoring a united Ireland, and Protestants on the other wanting to keep the status quo of Northern Ireland within the UK. I knew the conflict was somehow resolved in the 1990s, and that “Sunday Bloody Sunday” by Dublin-based U2 was written about it. That’s where my knowledge stopped.

After a short drive through downtown Dublin—Blake parked his SUV in a modest, slightly rundown but quiet neighborhood of townhouses with an odd chain-link-fence-topped wall in the distance. He switched off the ignition but we stayed in the car to keep warm. Blake began talking and when, within the first 30 seconds, he said—“A good starting point to understand the Troubles is Martin Luther’s ninety-five theses in 1517 and the Protestant Reformation.”—I knew I was in for a bit of a mind shift. Blake moved quickly through the next 170 years to the 1690 Battle of the Boyne fought 30 miles north of Dublin (in today’s Republic of Ireland). It was the last time that two kings fought on a battlefield and pitted the deposed, Catholic James II and VII of England, Ireland, and Scotland, against the Protestant pair of William III of Orange and his wife Queen Mary II (remember the orange color representing Protestants in our table above). Interestingly—and related to Rhett’s and my adventures in Paris and Rome—Catholic James enjoyed the support of his cousin, the Catholic Louis the XIV of France (who built the Palace of Versailles). Louis sent 6,000 French troops to the battle to assist James, as he did not want to see a hostile ruler (William) on the throne of England. In reaction to Louis’s support of Charles, Pope Alexander VIII (obviously a Catholic) lined up behind the Protestant William, fearing Louis XIV’s continued expansion in Europe. William’s forces carried the day at the Battle of Boyne and ensured the continued Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland.

As Blake skillfully and knowledgeably worked through the history of the 1700 and 1800s, and into the early-1900s, he was quick to point out that although he tries to paint a balanced picture, like all of us, he brings his background to the table. Rhett and I got the sense he was of a Protestant upbringing but it didn’t seem appropriate or relevant to ask the question outright. Besides, we were enthralled with the history. As an example of his balance, when he talked about the 1845 Potato Famine in Ireland, he said, “The Famine was indiscriminate. It killed regardless of Catholic or Protestant…and London didn’t care.” As he finished that sentence, there was no trace whatsoever of the cheery dimples, and his eyes looked off into the distance with a menacing glint. After a brief but unsettling silence in the car, he exhaled and shook his head to clear a thought as a child might shake an Etch A Sketch to clear an image. Just as quickly as it had appeared, his defiant countenance evaporated and he retuned to the present and smiled at us.

After half an hour of Blake talking and deftly fielding our frequent questions, he reached the 1916 Easter Rising (covered in our first Irish post) which was a precursor to the 1920-21 Anglo-Irish War (a.k.a., Irish War of Independence). This war resulted in the 1921 partitioning of the island and the creation of the Republic of Ireland (originally the Irish Free State) and Northern Ireland. With a modest flourish, Blake said, “With all of that background, we can move to the Troubles.”

The 1969 Battle of the Bogside riot in Derry/Londonderry Northern Ireland is generally viewed as the precipitating event of the 29 years of Troubles. (Derry being the preferred Catholic/Nationalist/Republican name of the city, and Londonderry being the preferred Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist name.) However, Blake said that in talking to old-timers, they often commented that during the1966, 50-year remembrances of the Easter Rising, there was “something in the air,” and many present thought that conflict would soon follow—they were right.

Blake drove us closer to the fence and soon we were confronted by the enormity of this “peace wall” (a.k.a., a separation barrier). My first thought was, Oh that’s nice, they left a little section of it standing for us tourists to gawk, and understand what it was like “back in the day.” However, as we craned our necks to see the fence that capped the wall and Blake continued to drive and the wall unfolded into the distance, we realized that this was an active barrier. It stretched as far as the eye could see through the car’s front and back windshields. This wasn’t some abbreviated artifactual ruin but the real thing. Yes it was history, but it was also Belfast’s present and foreseeable future. As this realization sank into Rhett’s and my brains, Blake informed us that in the 1980s there were 18 peace walls in Belfast. Today there are about 100. He added that a recent survey of the city revealed that 69% of residents want the walls to remain.

Both Rhett and I were born in 1964 and were the children of faithful six o’clock news watching parents. Therefore, we had grown up with the images of Irish sectarian violence burned in our minds and—at the time—the seeming intractability of the conflict. In addition, as a species I think we’re inexorably drawn to stories with endings, especially happy endings and—as such—Rhett and I had both assumed that the 1998 Good Friday Agreement was the concluding punctuation mark in the happy ending of the story of the Troubles. Boy were we wrong. Blake’s educated and nuanced perspective of the Good Friday Agreement was that it took the conflict from unmanaged (and explosive) to managed; managed but not resolved. The Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist view is that the Agreement was a settlement (once and for all), whereas the Catholic/Nationalist/Republican view is that it was a stepping stone to the UK’s eventual withdrawal from the island and the unification of Ireland. In the interstitial space I can imagine exhausted and exasperated negotiators grasping at any kind of near-term ceasefire—even if the two sides had different understandings of the longer-term implications of the Agreement.

Our first view of a peace wall. The children’s playground in the foreground is the epitome of irony.
The same peace wall as above viewed from another angle.
Rhett and I in front of the Dali Lama Gate. The last time it was opened was in 2000 when Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dali Lama, walked through it.
If you look carefully above where the road bends to the right in the distance, you’ll see the Shankill Road peace wall continuing.

Here’s a locked automobile gate and an open pedestrian gate in the peace wall…

The Protestant side…
…and the Catholic side. Note to the right, the high fencing that’s visible in the other pictures.
Close-up of the sign over the pedestrian gate. I think the automobile gate is only opened in emergencies to allow fire engines and ambulances to pass.

Next Blake took us to a Catholic memorial on Bombay Street. The entire street was burned to the ground by Loyalists in 1969…

A panoramic of the Bombay Street Memorial with peace wall in the background.
Martyrs who were killed in the clash. Note the liberal use of Gaelic.
Celtic cross.
Tribute to Gerald McAuley, a 15-year old IRA member shot and killed by a Loyalist sniper.

Blake then took us to “the other side.” It was a Protestant neighborhood and the site of Frizzell’s, a fish shop that the IRA bombed in 1993 after receiving a tip that the leadership of the Loyalist Ulster Defence Association (UDA) was meeting above the shop. Although the meeting had occurred, it ended early and UDA leadership had already left the building when the bomb detonated. One of the bombers and nine innocent people in the shop were killed, and more than 50 others were injured.

The site of Frizzell’s. It never reopened after the bombing.
Close-up of the plaque and memorial. The cards and small wooden cross were recently tucked behind the permanent remembrance (poppy) cross.
Just around the corner from Frizzell’s, the intimidating “street art” of the Ulster Volunteer Force.

Blake concluded by sharing that he was a young man at the time of the bombing and happened to be in a pub down the street from Frizzell’s on the fateful day. The noise was deafening, the ground shook, and foamy pint glasses rattled and smashed on the pub’s floor. He was one of the first on the scene after the detonation and the corner of his mouth twitched as he recounted the mix of smells of the explosives, the victims, and the burning fish. Although this was a firsthand story and much more intense than his historical retelling of the Potato Famine, his steely gaze into the distance was the same. After a long and grim breath, another Etch A Sketch shake of the head broke his trance and he was back to the present.

As we concluded the tour and Blake drove us back to our hotel through the cold gray November day, Rhett and I were content but somber. We’d gone into the day expecting to see and learn about “history.” Instead we were inundated by the present day reality. As the three of us talked about how the morning had impacted Rhett and me, Blake added that the “peace walls” have now been in existence for longer than the Berlin Wall (1961-1989). We drove in silence for a few minutes allowing that fact to sink in. Rhett broke the quiet with an insightful question, “Blake, if you were king for a day, what would you do to bring about some kind of lasting and peaceful change?” Blake pondered this over a red-light and then went to his elementary-aged children as representatives of our future. He cited learnings from his studies in conflict resolution, and said that he’d overhaul both the Northern Ireland education system and public housing. The vast majority of schoolchildren are educated in segregated (Catholic or Protestant) schools. With this vacuum of interaction, children adopt and prolong the stereotypes and biases of their parents. In addition, to this day 96% of social housing in Belfast is divided by religious affiliation.

As Blake pulled up to our hotel and we collected our belongings from his car, we asked if we could get a selfie with him to remember our day together. He had no qualms with the photograph and the three of us were all smiles (and he, all dimples) despite the heavy material of the day.

Our picture with Blake.

Our brains were full and processing so Rhett and I didn’t talk about it much that afternoon but over our Irish pub dinner that evening we did our best to make sense of all we had learned, and of the history that was still being written.

While the words and pictures above are plenty of material for a post, for us it’s just a pause-point where the story really starts to twist…

The next day dawned clear and chilly and we prepped for our second and final day of touring Belfast. Over more Irish oatmeal we planned our day. We’d start at the Crumlin Road Gaol, a historic restored jail that Blake had recommended we see. We’d spend the second half of the day at the Titanic Museum (while Titanic departed Southampton, England on her first…last…and only voyage, she was built in Belfast’s shipyards).

As I settled the bill for breakfast, Rhett requested an Uber and “Liam” was connected with us as our driver and would be picking us up in a Mercedes. Ten minutes later we were snuggled in comfy cream-colored leather seats and on our way. While that was all to the good, it soon became evident that—and there were no two ways about it—Liam was a grumpy old man. He had perfected the art of finding and accentuating the negative in everything. It’s funny, although European ride shares have some idiosyncrasies as compared with US ride shares, the grumpy-old-man-driver is a universal archetype—we’ve all had them, and mid-ride we all say to ourselves, When will this trip be over?

When the “Rhett and Dan travel team” are in a taxi or ride share (as you might guess), I’m rather taciturn, offsetting Rhett’s loquaciousness. I was enjoying myself that morning on the drive. Watching Rhett try to interact productively with Liam reminded me of Pooh trying to cheer up Eeyore. It was all fun and games until Liam noticed our destination of the Crumlin Road Gaol. He barked a sharp “Aye!” and added in his brogue, “Why would anyone in their right mind go to a jail—voluntarily?” He muttered something under his breath about a lot of good and innocent men had been incarcerated there. Rhett responded in her sweet southern accent, “Well…we do so love history and yesterday we had the best private tour of the Troubles, our guide Blake recommended we see the jail.” Something about this sentence got Liam’s attention and we found ourselves riveted to plush leather by his fierce gaze in the rear view mirror. “Who was your guide?” he snapped. Rhett replied, “A gentleman by the name of Blake Davis.” Now we had both Liam’s attention and his hackles up. For the remainder of the drive to the Crumlin Road Gaol we were on the butt end of a salty fusillade of grievances with Blake. While a bit meandering and untethered, the gist of the beef was that (in Liam’s opinion) Blake was a good-for-nothing Loyalist and Blake had also stolen Liam’s idea for a black taxi tour service in Belfast. His expletives directed at Blake were a 50/50 cocktail of words that we understood and the remainder (I assume) old Gaelic. Rhett surreptitiously lit the screen on her phone and we glanced down at it, relieved to see that the ride would be over in five minutes. After these five minutes of eternity elapsed, we arrived at the jail and bade farewell to Liam. As he sped off we looked at each other and exhaled a sigh of relief. One more point of evidence that the Troubles were not some historical artifact stored behind museum glass. As we played back Liam’s rant in our heads, it was unclear if he knew Blake personally or just knew-of Blake. No matter, we were out of the car and moving forward. Still, it was odd and unsettling. While Belfast isn’t huge, it is 350,000 people—what are the chances these two men would know, or know-of each other?

The prison tour was good, not great but good. Perhaps Liam was right, after all, it was just a jail. The most ghastly part of the tour was the execution suite. The suite’s anteroom was designed to be a calming space where the condemned—who would soon have a noose around his neck—would wait and perhaps pray with clergy or eat a last meal. As we walked through the “in” door to the anteroom, we imagined the panic of a the many rightly or wrongly convicted prisoners who had crossed that same threshold. In an attempt to be soothing, the room was comfortably but austerely furnished with a few chairs, a small table, a couch, and a homey bookcase complete with a few volumes on its shelves. There was also a freestanding toilet in the corner, making it clear that—barring any last-minute pardon—this was a one-way journey. As our eyes adjusted to the soft light and we looked around further, we noticed confusedly that there was no “out” door. The only visible portal was the door through which we had entered. Our guide said that the room originally had a hinged door to the hanging platform, but prisoners understandability fixated on that door and the longer their wait, the more agitated they became about the prospect of what was behind the door. Therefore, our guide informed us that the door had been replaced by the bookcase. As Rhett and I were trying to make sense of that logic, our guide showed us a hidden button that a guard would unobtrusively press at the appointed time. Our guide demonstrated and when the button was depressed, there was a mechanical click and the bookcase slowly trundled to the right revealing the hanging chamber with its noose and trap floor.

The anteroom with its “secret” bookcase looking into the hanging chamber. The noose is above Rhett’s right shoulder and trap floor at her toes.

Walking from the anteroom through the threshold and into the hanging chamber was the height of macabre. Although I was straining to keep myself focused and respectful, the brain is going to do what the brain is going to do, and my brain went to Scooby-Doo. I imagined the sliding bookcase transported into a spooky, cobwebbed mansion with the Mystery Machine parked out front and the gang inside and split-up looking for phantoms. Of course if that were the case, the hidden button would be replaced by a wall mounted candelabra that an exhausted Shaggy would inevitably lean against, unintentionally activating the bookcase. I finished my few moments of pre-teen Saturday morning cartoon reverie by muttering under my breath, “If it weren’t for those meddling kids…,” and then realized the chasm between my concocted fantasy and this awful reality.

The historical highlight of the tour—and what we should have seen coming, and what helped us make sense of Liam’s reaction to us visiting the jail—was that it housed inmates from 1846-1996, through the Anglo-Irish War and the Troubles. Being state-sponsored (its official name is Her Majesty’s Prison Crumlin Road) while the occasional Unionist/Loyalist had been incarcerated there, the vast majority of its political prisoners were Irish Nationalists and often members of the IRA or Sinn Féin. The pieces of our personal Belfastian jigsaw puzzle were starting to fall into place.

As you might expect, there wasn’t any mobile phone service in the jail, so we exited to the prison yard to call an Uber for a ride to the Titanic Museum. Being late-November, we found holiday decorations outside and the juxtaposition of the festive decor with the dark memories of the prison yard was jarring (prisoners who were hanged behind the secret bookcase had been buried under our feet in the yard, in unconsecrated ground). Jarring or not, it didn’t keep us from availing ourselves while the Uber app hunted for our “next” driver.

Rhett and Sunny hamming it up. How Rhett got Sunny to wave were her paw, I’ll never know.
“A tusk! A tusk! My kingdom for a tusk.” Either that or, “Dan, on the street and ‘tusking’ for spare change.”
In case you’re wondering—yes, Rhett did sneak Sunny into Crumlin Road Gaol.

After our little jailhouse photo shoot, Rhett looked at her phone scrunched her eyebrows and groaned, “Oh no! We’ve got Liam again! He’ll be here in seven minutes.” My first thought was to cancel the ride (regardless of any penalty) and wait a bit and hope for a new driver. However, as we studied Rhett’s phone screen we realized that this must be a another Liam: different make of car, different license plate, different picture. Whew, close call.

As we clambered into the back of the modest Toyota sedan. We noticed that “Liam 2” was a striking contrast to Liam 1. Liam 2 was (relatively) younger—about 10-15 years Rhett’s and my junior—and big and brawny with one of those jovial smiles that are tinged with a hint of wise guy—just enough to keep you on your toes. If you ever find yourself drinking all afternoon in some crosstown bar and a Liam 2 walks in, you’d best befriend him. Not only would the conversation be interesting (and probably more interesting as the afternoon wore on), but you’d rather be on his good than his bad side. After some pleasantries, Liam 2 headed us for the Titanic Museum; although only a 15-minute drive, the fastest route utilized several multi-lane highways with some quick off- and on-ramps.

In retrospect, throughout our morning Rhett and I hadn’t talked much about our run in with Liam 1. We chalked it up to a old guy getting up on the wrong side of the bed (which for him was probably either side). It was a sample size of one and we certainly weren’t going to judge Blake, and his excellent tour of the Troubles, based on that. Therefore, when Liam 2 struck up a conversation about our Belfast itinerary, we naturally brought up the name Blake Davis. Immediately—and for the second time that day—we were confronted by a narrowing pair of eyes staring us down from a rear view mirror. (Trust me, if Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols or The Ramones ever covered “When Irish Eyes are Smiling” it would have been a perfect soundtrack for the day.) Liam 2 exclaimed, “You got into a car with ‘Blinky’ Davis?” At the word “Blinky,” Rhett and I exchanged furtive panicked glances. As Liam 2 turned onto a highway on-ramp his tirade about Blake (a.k.a, Blinky) Davis mirrored the arc and acceleration of the Toyota. Aside from the expletives (which are always generational) Liam 2’s choice of words to describe Blinky was eerily similar to Liam 1’s: Loyalist, Unionist, etc. Nicknames are funny, they can make some people appear friendlier and more likable, however a nickname’s jocularity can also project a dark undertone (think “Bugsy” Siegel, or “Baby Face” Nelson). When uttered disgustingly by Liam 2, “Blinky” sounded like the latter.

Up until that point, Rhett and I had been throughly enjoying our time on the island of Ireland and we didn’t want to go down in history as the straws that broke the camel’s back of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement so I made a vain gambit to smooth things over. “Maybe there are two Blake Davises in Belfast who do tours?” I bleated. While I had visualized my delivery as a mix of confidence and insouciance, my words wafted into the front seat with a meek hopefulness. Rhett silently agreed by shooting me a sidelong glance and a dig in the ribs. Liam 2 didn’t bother with words to respond to my lame attempt, I just got a guffaw and a wise guy smile. We barreled down the highway for the next 30 seconds as Liam collected himself. He then deftly pulled the car onto an off-ramp, all the while searching the internet on his phone for something. Rhett and I tensed and our right legs reflexively straitened (hoping to find a brake pedal in the backseat). By the time Martin 2 brought the Toyota to a halt at a red light at the bottom of the ramp, he had found what he was looking for. The stoplight was considering turning green when Liam 2 simultaneously accellerated and turned around and handed his phone to us. There on Liam 2’s screen was a headline from the Irish News with a slightly blurry but unmistakable Blake defiantly standing next to his lawyer at a courtroom table. The welcoming dimples that greeted us the day before were replaced by a menacing scowl. The headline said something about firearms charges and bail.

While my and Rhett’s and mothers taught us never to lie, they also wouldn’t want to see us ending up face down, floating in the Belfast shipping channel—therefore, without words exchanged between us, Rhett and I decided that, in just this one teeny instance, it was best to lie. Rhett stammered, “Whe-whe-well, that mi-mi-might have been him?” (she had really turned up the “southern” by this point) “I really can’t tell though, he had a hat on the whole time we were with him.” And—just a little too quickly—she handed the phone back, as if to bury the evidence. A poignant moment of silence, and then—another guffaw from Liam 2. I’ve spent enough time in seedy bars and enough time with Liam 2-types, to know that although you can get by with one guffaw and you can probably get away in one piece with two guffaws, you absolutely don’t want to elicit a third.

In a classic “saved by the bell” scenario, the Titanic Museum hove into view. We quickly bade farewell to Liam 2 who turned to give us a big, knowing smile as he sped off. We were glad it was the other Liam who picked us up from our hotel (and thus knew where we were staying). As the Toyota disappeared around a bend in the shipyard, Rhett and I looked at each other and sighed.

We spent the next 20 minutes with espresso drinks in the museum’s cafe and Googling “Blake Davis Belfast” on our phones. On our way into the museum and cafe, I did my best to calm a freaking-out Rhett, by saying, “Relax honey, anything that Blake might have done, I’m sure he did 20 years ago. We all deserve forgiveness and we all change.” For Rhett, there’s nothing more aggravating than when I use her own language against her (i.e., to calm her down). However, as we sipped and searched, we found the article that Liam 2 had shown us and it was (drumroll) from six months ago. The crux of my earlier argument to Rhett to remain calm had just fallen flat on its face. Adding to this recency, the internet was replete with other articles and pictures of Blake. The articles spanned decades, several referenced Blinky as his nickname, all highlighted his ties to the radical Loyalist cause.

While we enjoyed our afternoon in the Titanic Museum (details in next post), as we walked through the guided and interactive exhibits, our brains kept rewinding to the events of the morning and the day before. Although, according to the internet, Blake had been acquitted of the most recent firearms charges due to, “a lack of forensic evidence,” there were enough articles and posts about him that it passed our “where there’s smoke there’s fire” test.

That evening over dinner at another pub we continued trying to unravel the mystery (I had the creamy fish pie…it was amazing, far better than it sounds). We mentally traced the string back to our original introduction to Blake (the balanced-perspective tour company out of Israel). Although that company seemed totally legit, there were several handoffs between them and Blake. Still, I knew enough about Irish history to know that Blake really knew his stuff—he was no imposter when it came to the history. Talking to us without notes his command of names, places, and dates was encyclopedic. In addition, Rhett and I have done a lot of tours and rightfully consider ourselves educated travel consumers. If “Blinky” had subconsciously veered into a biased foment, we would have noticed and halted the whole tour. The harder we tried to untangle the gordian knot, the more threads of the enigma appeared. Why would someone so invested in either side of the conflict purport to be a balanced tour guide (and a good one at that)? Would the fee we paid him for his services find its way into the coffers of the conflict machine? We considered reaching out to him via text for answers but concluded that some mysteries are better left unsolved.

The morning after our Crumlin Road Gaol and Titanic Museum day, we checked out of our hotel and requested (yet another) Uber, this time to get us to the Belfast Ferry Terminal. The app did its thing while we held our breath…waiting…finally: success! There was not to be a Liam 3. A happy-go-lucky, red-headed Terry picked us up (who bore a striking resemblance to Colleen’s father Terry McMahon). Needless to say, we had learned our lesson and, while we had delightful trip with Terry (and his twinkling sky-blue irises restored our faith in “Irish eyes”), we gave Blake and our Troubles-tour a wide berth and didn’t bring it up in the conversation. Our driver Terry looked so much like our “Grandpa T” I had to get his picture. He insisted that he reciprocate by taking our picture in front of the terminal.

Soon after, the fair winds and following seas of the Irish Sea, and the rumbling diesel engines of the ferry, were propelling us on our 40 nautical mile voyage to Cairnryan, Scotland—then on to Glasgow, Edinburg, and England and Wales.

Fair winds and following seas. Hazel James out. HJ is getting excited as she’s soon to be recommissioned and setting sail for Greece!

Our driver Terry (I’m confident that anyone who knows our beloved “Grandpa T” McMahon will be shaking their heads at the doppelgänger).
Terry got our picture, bundled up in front of the ferry terminal.
Farewell to the Emerald Isle (from the top deck of our ferry).