A Mad-Dash accross the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, Tunisia - Turkey non-stop
After having stayed in Hammamet many months more than we had planned for due to the collision we suffered while in the Marina back in December and then due to the COVID lockdowns we were finally able to leave port.
The border opened on the 28th of June, a Sunday, and first thing in the morning we moved to the Customs and fuel dock. Fuelled up The Dream and waited and waited to be granted permission to leave. With the reopening of the borders, new procedures had been implemented and it was necessary to receive an authorisation by email from Tunis (?!) before being able to depart, this of course on the very first hours of the reopening of the maritime border and on Sunday meant delays were going to happen.
Our friends Gerard, Nádia, Flávio and Phiphi, showed up at the Customs dock on Gerard's boat to say goodbye to us one more time before heading out for a fishing day off the coast of Hammamet. We would only be able to leave the dock a further hour later or so.
We exited the marina, hoisted our sails and soon enough our friends were "chasing" us on their powerboat for one last goodbye whilst on their fishing mission. Super fun and deeply emotional to say goodbye like this.
We had a long journey ahead of us. Around 7 to 8 days of motor sailing non-stop from Tunisia to Turkey. Due to the Covid19 restrictions, Europe was still with its maritime borders closed rejecting any non-EU flag vessel, Turkey, on the other hand, had opened their borders to any vessel applying only restrictions or sanitary measures on arrival on a case by case basis. With the collision repairs having to be redone due to the extremely poor quality works done in Tunisia and still with a broken furler we were left with no option besides motor sailing almost non-stop.
We had been lucky enough to have a very light wind forecast for the days after the reopening of the Tunisian maritime border both on the Ionian Sea and the Aegean Sea, by now the Meltemi (strong winds Northerly winds that affect the Aegean side of Greece) the winds season had already started and got a favourable forecast for the two seas quite unlikely.
A broken Furler meant we didn’t have an all-weather headsail only the Code 0C could be used and this one is only suitable for light wind conditions from 60 degrees to 140 degrees, but the rigging had also not been inspected by the insurance surveyor after the accident and we were not that comfortable with the idea of flying the Code 0C without being sure everything was ok with the rig.
Past lunchtime, around 3 hours after departing we were called on VHF by a Tunisian warship questioning who we were and where were we going. 30 minutes later the Tunisian Coast Guard would repeat the exercise, motoring past in the distance. It was quite clear the maritime borders were being heavily patrolled due to the Covid19 restrictions but also due to the increased attempt of illegal immigrants of crossing to European waters through Tunisian waters on rafts was being patrolled.
The day carried on with a sighting of a big turtle, a shark fin and a pod of dolphins stealing fish from a super long net marked with plastic bottles as we sailed passed parallel to it.
A Tunísian fishing boat seemed to be following us in the distance making us feel a bit uncomfortable for a while but with the Tunisian Warship in the horizon (that seemed to be simply drifting not actually moving) we were felt assured nothing creepy would happen. We could hear the warship communicating often with boats on both sides of the border and at the same time, we could hear an Italian warship that seemed to be just a bit further in the Italian waters but close enough to the border.
Early morning of the second day the winds were light and the conditions just right for a polite sail with the Code 0C, nearly two hours into flying the Code 0C and as we crossed near the north of Malta we started seeing several fishing pots scattered everywhere making the exercise of attempting to sail stressful. We furled the Code 0C and focused on avoiding the minefield of fishing pots.
We had been monitoring a group of fishing boats for a couple of hours and tried to keep a safe distance from them despite their erratic course. Suddenly we saw 3 orange floaters in the water, but we were at a safe distance or so we thought, until we saw these bright orange thin lines floating in the water, luckily we were fast enough to stop the boat and propeller before it sucked the lines, but we still got those lines caught in our keel and rudder. Superfast action from both of us and we dropped the mainsail and came to an almost halt. I quickly grabbed the boat hook and managed to catch one of the threads floating before it got pulled down by our keel, John quickly grabbed the knife that is on the spray-hood pocket and the two of us dragged the line to the stern, we dropped the swim platform and cut the line free but still holding one of its ends. We managed to pick the other end up after it freed the keel and retied it so that the fishermen wouldn’t lose their catch.
Very close to the 3 orange floaters was one of the fishing vessels and the moment we got caught on the floaters and dropped our mainsail they started moving in our direction. Our immediate thought was that they were coming to the rescue of their net etc and try and see if they could release us from their gear but the moment they had visual confirmation we were tangled the vessel turned in the opposite direction and speed up onto the horizon without rendering us any assistance. We finished being freed from their lines and carried our way without damage.
Offending Fishing vessel: Queen
The day carried on with a few other attempts at flying the Code 0C whenever possible, we were trying to keep the straightest and most direct course possible to Turkey, our weather forecast was only for 5 days and we would be affected by the Meltemi on the last 12h of our trip if the forecast held true, but this was the Med and the 5-day forecast tends to be not that reliable towards the last days and we would not be able to download any update once losing our 4G signal of Tunisia. All our European SIM cards were well past expired.
The third-day early morning and the conditions to fly the Code 0C were perfect again except for the light fog. We decided to fly it anyway and give the engine and ourselves a rest, this was going to be a long journey...
With the radar on, we felt comfortable enough. My shift finished and I went to sleep.
Not much later after setting the sail, John caught a 6.5kg Albacore tuna. I had to get up quickly to manage and depower the sail enough for John to reel the tuna in and then clean it and prepare to freeze it.
The freezer was now full for our trip.
The rest of the day was marked by a few other periods when we could fly the Code 0C.
On the early hours of the fourth day, I finished my night shift with setting up the Code 0C and went to sleep. 1 hour later I get awoken by the buzzing of the fishing reel, John had caught another tuna. I quickly get up all grumpy, thinking where the heck am I and going to pull up another fish?!
John reels it in and it’s another Albacore tuna, this time 7.5kg. He quickly cleans it and prepares it for freezing and I somehow manage to stuff it in the freezer. Keeping the heads, centre bones and offcuts of both fish in the "freezer" shelf of the fridge to make a fish soup first thing when we arrive. The freezer is now overflowing with food.
By the fifth day, we are approaching the Peloponnese.
The barometer values drop up to 20 points since the beginning of the trip. This seems to confirm the forecasted Meltemi for the last 12-24 h of our passage meaning weather.
We were starting to get more cargo traffic closer to us and eventually the first stressful moment arises when the overtaking Motor Vessel Holstein Express MMSI 253579000 Call Sign LXHT didn’t seem to make any adjustments to their course to avoid colliding with us and refused to reply to all our calls on VHF forcing us into taking extreme measures to avoid us being run over by him. We diverted our course significantly and increase our RPMs to get out of his way, what an experience to have.
By nightfall we were approaching the Steno Kithiron (South of Penepolese) passage under the engine, no other vessels in the nearby area to worry us about.
As the morning rises we could see the southern Greek islands and how barren they look. For a really long period, we had 4 fishing vessels going all over ahead of us forcing us to keep a close eye on their movement’s and adjust our course to keep out of the way, as the midday approaches they seemed to divert to one of the islands we assume to return to port with their catch.
Towards the end of that day we started getting closer to Rhodes we could see a difference in the wind conditions, stronger gusts between 19 and 25 knots. Nothing to worry about with a reefed main, but what we didn’t expect was for the crossed big swells created by the island's windward of us. Instead of having areas with big swells and areas where the islands provided protection of the swell what we experienced was the swell wrapping around the islands creating big sloppy seas. Probably the most uncomfortable we have been at sea in recent passages.
By nightfall we are crossing the Rhodes channel busy with lots of cargo, heading north to Istanbul, Athens etc., our angle of crossing this busy area was the one we consider more problematic because we end up moving roughly in a similar direction as the cargo ships instead of having to cross them perpendicularly.
When entering Turkish waters we had a few cargo vessels to negotiate the last one that was going to overtake us responded nicely over the VHF and stated that he would pass on our stern and if possible for us to keep our course and speed or adjust port. We adjusted to port and increased our speed a bit to make the crossing easier the cargo vessel however he started adjusting aggressively towards us.
We tried to call him several times over the VHF but this time he would simply not answer and kept turning toward us.
We had to be fast to avoid being literally run over by the vessel so we adjusted our course 40 degrees to port and took our RPMS to 2400 only when John said over the VHF that the cargo vessel action “was an act of aggression and against all maritime laws” the cargo vessel slightly corrected their course to starboard bearing away.
In the meantime, a flying drone started circling us and the cargo vessel that seemed to be surveilling the situation and shortly after the cargo vessel corrected its course to their original course and turned all navigation lights off proceeding on full dark.
We adjusted our course to follow along the coast despite being subject to wind accelerating compressed against the cliffs and had to negotiate a small fishing vessel trawling a net full of little coloured LED lights before managing to get to the Marmaris bay entrance where we faced strong winds accelerating in the cut between the mountains and the valley of the bay entrance.