Isola D’Elba

I think the British did Napoleon a favour when they exiled him to Elba.  In fact, I think it’s a wonder he ever wanted to leave, even if there was an empire up for grabs. 

Elba has been a beautiful sanctuary for the Orchid crew.  Rumours in the Caribbean of beautiful sailing and secure anchorages brought us to this little known island and it took a commitment on our part – motoring for 4 days to get there (damn the ‘motor-terannean’).  But the effort was definitely worthwhile.  On Elba we found beautiful bays, beaches, harbour-side towns and mountain top villages that almost kept us there much longer than we’d planned.  We toured the island by bus, scuba dived along its coast (Alexander did his Padi Scuba Diver certification) and whiled away the hours in bars and cafes.

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The main port of Elba is Porto Ferraio, but we found Porto Azzurro on the east coast to be a better base for cruising. At the end of a deep inlet lay a snug anchorage beside a pretty, colourful little village, protected from all directions.  We discovered Porto Azzurro to be a great combination of quaint lanes, colourful architecture and in the evening a festive night life of music, wine bars and boutiques.

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Elba was also the location for our first guests aboard Orchid, Bruce and Lori Lynn.   A new dynamic – the workings of 6 aboard …personal space / non-stop social interaction … Well, we are pleased to say, “They were our best guests ever!” Was this pre-empted by the ‘care package’ ? of not just English treats, but also Australian favourites, “Noh!”

We all relaxed into a holiday weekend spent with an enjoyable balance of prosecco, sailing, gastronomy, swimming, gastronomy, world righting, gelato, vino, spinnaker swinging, exploring, and did I mention, gastronomically tantalizing delights. It was perfect! They termed themselves ‘cargo’, but really, enjoyed seeing how it was to ‘live aboard’ – dingy trips ashore for provisions and wi-fi (ok, so this was for iPad updates of Angry Birds & Star Charts), mucking in on the helm, (even the pleasures of maintenance, as the steering failed mid sail back to port for their departing flight), daily siestas (for the full experience of course) and yes, no razors.

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It was hard to say goodbye to the Lynns and hard to say goodbye to Elba.  They had to return to work however and we had to remind ourselves that Tuscany was the real destination – somewhere we’ve wanted to visit for 10 years – and so reluctantly, we pulled anchor, set sail once again and continued the voyage north for Pisa.

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Mistaken Identity

So it’s dark, everyone’s asleep below and I’m chilling out on the foredeck, wishing I had a book on the stars of the northern hemisphere because the moon isn’t up and the stars are sooo bright…. Just as I stifle a yawn, I turn to look over my shoulder and there behind me is a masthead light. Judging by the distance from the water, it looks very close too!

“Shit! Where did he come from!” I quickly jump on the radio and try to raise them – I can’t see any navigation lights so I’m assuming they’re not working because the boat is getting closer…..and then…..

Whoosh, straight over my head – it was a bloody helicopter with it’s landing light on Apparently I was sailing straight through the flight path for the Majorca airport!

No wonder he didn’t answer his radio…..

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Islas Baleares

After a leisurely 48 hr sail from Almeria, we dropped our anchor in Formenterra, the southern most island of the Balearics.  Here we found a perfectly sheltered anchorage, white sand and clear water.  Perhaps the best beach we’ve found since Bequia and there was even a mineral salt-mud bath behind the beach that we all took advantage of (though I had reservations about rolling around in the mud with naked people…..at least while the children were present!).

Formenterra was the site of our rendezvous with Antonio and friends who had driven their motor boat over from Almeria.  Similar to our time in Agua Amarga, the following 2 days were filled with great meals, lots of laughter, swimming and (in Antonio’s case) lots of young women! Rachel played ‘mama’ to them all and was given a peek at times ahead (with teenage sons and all their trimmings).

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It was a shame to have such a short time in Formenterra but we were on a tight schedule so it was quickly off to Mallorca to meet up with friends from the Caribbean, Lakki, Hildegunn and their 2 children. 

These guys have just sold their boat, having sailed around the Atlantic and Caribbean for the last 6 years.  Now, spending time with Lakki’s mother, they decided to rent a house in the hills above Palma – a lovely, rambling finca (farm), complete with fruit trees, grapevines and swimming pool.  When they asked if we’d stay with them for a couple of days, how could we say no?!! 

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Here we spent our time walking through the forest, listening to a concert in the village plaza and idly watching the world go by – it was in this setting that I celebrated my 40th birthday! 

Unfortunately our time in Mallorca was also toooo short (though Rachel & Hildegunn did find time for a trip to Ikea).  We needed to get to Italy, this year’s destination, and to meet friends. So, after a few days, we pushed off and set our sights on Italia, hopefully our last passage for this year, 450nm / 4 days to Elba.

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Accidental Destination – Agua Amarga

We almost sailed past Agua Amarga but it was late in the day the last anchorage for another 30 miles so we did a quick turn to port and dropped our anchor below some ruins in the cliffs.

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Whilst getting squared away we were approached by a small pleasurecraft – speedboat who obviously intended to come up along side.  At the helm was a guy with a beaming smile surrounded by 4 half naked women.  Not wanting to be sprung talking to topless women unannounced, I quickly called Rachel up on deck 🙂 .

Our visitor was a local guy named Antonio who was just dropping by to be friendly, inviting us all to go snorkelling with him.  How could one say no!  Antonio turned out to be a bit of a social hub for us, introducing us to a number of other people who we then spent the following nights eating and drinking with aboard Orchid.

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Agua Amarga itself is a beautiful seaside town, white buildings nestled amongst the hills of the Caba de Gata National Park on the Costa Brava.  It’s a holiday town and yet is surprisingly quiet with the clientele more of the older family variety.  Our new friends tell us that few people come here because it is too far to drive from Almeria (which is only 40miles away 🙂 ).  It has a wonderful slow pace to it and the lanes and streets climb gently from the Plaza up the surrounding hillside.  It reminds me more of the photos of Santorini than what I’ve known of Spain.  We’ve enjoyed wandering the streets so much that we’ve even thought this would not be such a bad place to live.

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As always, the best experiences come from a combination of where you are and who you’re with.  In this case, Antonio, his family, friends another family; Vicki and Paco Garcia and their kids have been wonderful company.  We’ve spent many fantastic meals together aboard the boat which is a real novelty for them and a pleasure for us to share. 

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Through these new found friends we’ve gleaned an insight into what it’s like to live in Almeria and in Andalucía.  The people are very open, relaxed and generous (akin to our experiences  in the Azores) but have a real zest for life as you’d expect from the Spanish.  They love their food and enjoy sharing a meal with others at a very relaxed pace.

Last night we learned a little of the origins of Tapas which apparently originated from Andalucía and had the purpose of sitting atop the glass to keep flies out !!  In Andalucía, any drink you order has Tapas included in the price so it’s a standard thing to have with your drinks.

Originally our intention was to stay here for just a day.  Instead we’ll have been here for almost a week by the time the Garcia family go home from their holiday – a natural break for the kids rather than tearing them away prematurely from new friends.  Delays like this often reveal blessings in disguise though.  Here, stopped, we feel like we’re back on holidays again.  For a change we’re not in transit or even preparing to go somewhere.  It’s been a long time since we’ve had that feeling and for us is obviously a factor in successful cruising.  It’s also allowed us to slow down enough to appreciate each other again, the kids in particular have been wonderful to be around these past days – perhaps happier because they have their relaxed parents back again 🙂  All in all, Agua Amarga been a wonderful accident for us.  As we drift our way north to Italy, we’ll be keeping an eye out for more of these along the way….

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Back Where We Belong

Tonight we’ve pulled up at a beach just south of Marbella on the Costa del Sol.  The sun is setting, drinks have been poured and the boys have been for their first swim.  It feels like a very long time since we did something similar (St Barts in April if I recall correctly).

Stories abound within cruising circles of how expensive it is in the Med and that you can’t find anywhere to anchor.  Now this is probably true, but for the next few days we’re fortunate to have NO wind and therefore flat, glassy seas.  That being the case, we’ve decided to start out Spanish pilgrimage by dropping our anchor off the most beautiful spot we could find:  a sandy beach, backed by trees and beneath the summit of a mountain beyond.

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I can see why anchoring isn’t the norm on the Costa del Sol.  The coast is essentially one long beach with few natural harbours and completely exposed to any weather from the east-south-west.  With marinas running at Eur36/night you can see why most cruisers skip this part of the Med and just head on to the Balearics.   For ourselves though, we’re going to take advantage of the calm weather and anchor each night in the most beautiful places we can find as we make our way to Almeria before hopping across to the Balears.

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Passage Making Stats

Friends on Merengue suggested we post some stats on our trip for the benefit of others who might consider a similar passage (even if it’s from their arm chair).  Here’s how our Atlantic crossing has shaped up so far:

Water
We left St Martin with 500 litres in our tanks plus another 40 litres is spare water cans.  This is what we actually used:

  • St Martin – Bermuda:  8 days 125l
    • 3.9l per person, per day
  • Bermuda – Azores: 14 days 190l
    • 3.4l per person per day

We didn’t collect rain water enroute but we did use 50% salt water for dishes and bathing, leaving fresh water for drinking and cooking only.

Fuel
This was a big question for us when preparing the boat.  How much do we use per day, how much motoring are we likely to do and how much do we need to take?  After speaking with others, we took 150l in our main tanks, plus another 80l in spare jerry cans.  What we actually used was:

  • St Martin – Bermuda:  55 engine hours running at 1800rpm = 100l
    • 1.82l per engine hour
  • Bermuda – Azores: 88 engine hours at 1200rpm =100l
    • 1.3l per engine hour

On the way to Bermuda we used the engine to drive through calms and on the last day, head winds, making about 4.5kts.  On the trip to the Azores our approach was quite different thanks to a timely tip from David aboard Sula.  We used a combination of low engine revs and course adjustments to optimise our apparent wind angle to keep the sails full.  This we found would give us 5kts though the water at very lower revs.  We even did this with the spinnaker up on a couple of occasions.

Sea State & Weather
Probably the biggest concern for people contemplating (or refusing to contemplate) a crossing is being “all the way out there in a really bad storm”.  We were fortunate not to have much of this, though friends who left only 2 days later found themselves with fairly boisterous conditions.  In all cases though, the seas rarely got above 6 feet, which in an ocean is hardly anything.  In fact I can honestly say that we have seen much worse in the Caribbean.  That being said, we did choose our weather window very carefully.  On monitoring the weather, each day we would:

  • download the 24, 48 and 96hr weather faxes so we could see the big picture across the entire North Atlantic
  • download the 3 day detailed grib file (sent to us courtesy of Geoff on Beachhouse)
  • compare notes and ideas with the other boats around us via email
  • listen to Herb for his routing of boats around us.

With the above info, we had a lot of different perspectives with which to make our own decisions on where we would sail and the strength of wind we wanted.  For example, we had the option to sail further north on the way to the Azores if we wanted more wind, but we opted for 10-12kts rather than 15-20kts so stayed south.  Also, if something uncomfortable was on its way, we had a lot of warning so we could prepare ourselves and the boat accordingly.

Communications
We deliberated for months on whether we would invest in an SSB or a Satphone.  In the end we bought a satphone as a trial on the basis that it was 1/3 of the price and we could probably sell it later if we wanted to.  Using the satphone, we sync emails twice a day to send position reports and stay in touch. 

We found that we also had to use a specific email client as the usual hotmail or gmail takes too long to sync over the satphone.  For example, we would regularly be connected for 7-8 minutes to sync hotmail but the UUPLUS program we subscribed to did the whole thing in less than a minute.  The idea of having to pay for an email service was odd at first, but at $35 for the month, it quickly paid for itself in reduced satphone time.

In addition to the satphone, we also spent $175 on an SSB receiver (Sony World Radio ICF-SW7600GR).  This is a small radio that looks like it belongs on the kitchen bench but in fact is able to receive SSB transmissions as well as a full blown SSB transceiver (using the supplied external antenna).  With this we were able to listen to Herb and more importantly, download the free weatherfaxes around the world using a piece of software called SeaTTY ($45).

The jury is still out on satphone vs SSB.  We’d like to have been able to stay in radio contact with boats near us and to call into Herb directly.  I also like the idea of being able to sync emails using SSB, but the sticker price is still very high.  By comparison here’s what we’ve spent on the satphone:

  • Purchase price $1200 with 70 minutes
  • Additional minutes $500 (though this wouldn’t have been necessary if we didn’t burn up our initial credit sending texts….)
  • Monthly minute roll over cost $40
  • Each minute costs around $1.20 when connected but we receive texts and calls free.

The satphone has been very reliable and combined with UUPLUS is a perfect combination that costs us about $4/day, allowing us to sync emails twice and download a 3 day grib.  Considering the alternative SSB installation was going to cost $4k-$6k we’re still a long way ahead.

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Night Watch

I just popped my head up for watch checks, surrounded by 3 ships, no Ma, not literally, the lights of 3 ships each at 90deg from each other on the horizon, a glow coming from what I can only assume to be the mainland, and an almost full moon rising. The sky is crystal clear twinking with shiny stars. Now that’s what I call ‘night watch’.

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