And so the 2019 season begins, or maybe not
After delaying our departure 15 days due to a broken navigation instrument it was now finally time to leave Tunisia.
Our sea legs had already been put to the test on a shakedown sail to Pantelleria Island nearby and all systems on The Dream tested. The only thing missing was a small replacement safety seal for our small pressure cooker that our friend Gerard would pick up on his trip to Pantelleria.
It’s was now the end of March, the weather window to cross to Sicily was tight and as our friend Gerard got an unexpected delay on his trip the prospect of another delay on our departure was fast becoming a reality. The last opportunity for Gerard to cross back to Hammamet on his power boat was the Sunday afternoon and our ideal departure time matched his last window of return, So we waited. Besides getting the little pressure cooker piece we wanted to have one last drink with our friends to thank them one more time for making our stay so pleasant.
Gerard was pretty much doing a solo trip despite having guests onboard but none could assist docking the boat in case of stronger winds, so once we saw Gerard AIS signal close to the marina Ana went to the arrival dock to assist handling the lines, John was still recovering from a sprained ankle and limited in his capabilities of walking that far, and his mobility had been diminished for a few weeks.
One last drink with our friends, some tears in the corner of everyone’s eyes and we were off from our spot in the marina to the arrival dock to begin departure formalities.
We knew that the check out was going to be long from our previous experience but what we didn’t expect was that just before stamping the passports the Immigration police would tell us we couldn’t leave. A bit of confusion with their limited English, their French although better was not being sufficiently clear for us to understand the reasons why we couldn’t depart. The moment a fax paper in Arabic was shown to me (Ana) I started to worry, there had been legal complications with at least two other boats that we had known could it be that we would also be trapped on something dodgy?!
After much more conversation in French Ana finally understood that they were showing the weather forecast report received from their local weather bureau. All that we could understand was wind forces of 40 and we were not to leave.
Big red flag raised in our minds, quick double check of all our forecast models and we couldn’t understand, for the last couple of days, the forecast suggested 20 knots of wind gusts, core winds maybe of 15 to 18knots. It didn’t make any sense, even the latest update showed no significant deterioration of the sea state of wind conditions, although it was windy the wind was now slightly weaker than a couple of hours before when Gerard had arrived.
What was going on for such deviation of forecasts, a deviation of 20 knots should not be possible.
Lots of discussions back and forward, immigration police confirmed their forecast, it says 40 they said. And I notice through the office window that the big Coast Guard ship was on approach to the port. I came outside to evaluate the conditions in the marina entrance, with so much discuss now dark and hard to see past the pier, the coast guard boat bobs quite a bit as they turn to come in, but nothing we consider strange for such big power boat with poor stability on this kind of approach. We keep watching them moor to the arrival dock right behind us, a terribly performed manoeuvre aggravated by the rush of the line handlers, the boat collides the concrete pier violently but I guess that’s their normal manoeuvre given the relaxed look on every one of the involved faces.
I decided to ask to talk to the captain to speak his opinion regarding the conditions out in the open sea.
His reply is the winds are strong, around 40 just outside the marina. His comment causes even more confusion, there’s no way it’s 40 knots in just a couple of miles from the marina.
It’s 9 pm by now, we have been on the arrival dock for a few hours now, we decide that such discrepancy in the forecast is not worth the risk we will wait for the close to midnight forecast update, so we go and ask if we can get permission to remain on the arrival dock until later or even until the following morning, after all the departure formalities were not completed. With all the superiors out both the Immigration police, the marina staff and the Coast Guard had no objections, they are just baffled that we were considering departure with such forecast, just the two of us on a sailboat.
Then a moment of clarity goes by in my mind, what units do they use on their forecasts?
They kept mentioning 40, but 40 what? Knots? Km/h?
It must be 40 km/h, 20 knots is roughly 40km/h, could that be it?
A question in the marina reception to the night shift Marinero seemed to suggest that it was 40km/h, shortly after an officer of the Guard Nationalle (one of the other police services) that was at the marina reception having coffee and speaks English confirms the forecast is in km/h, not knots.
The frustration settled in, we had waisted hours trying to understand why the forecasts were so different, the language barrier because they barely spoke English and their French was also not so good had caused us a big set back in regards of our tight weather window.
Given the late hour, past 10pm we decided to leave the following morning, Monday the 1st of April. Conveniently called April’s fool.
We had been fooled by the Tunisian authorities.
The following morning at around 5.30 am we were back at Immigration police office to complete departure formalities, we had already wasted plenty of time and our opportunity to cross to Sicily was disappearing, if we didn’t leave fast we would have to wait another week at least.
Keen to get rid of us before their superiors arrive and collect their backsheesh, in less than an hour we were departing Tunisia.
With precious time lost on the previous night misunderstood we found ourselves fighting the winds that had already turned and were now coming from North-east to East making progression slow and having to resort to engine power a lot more than we wanted. In order to progress at a good pace under sail the option was to run parallel to Tunisian coast passing Pantelleria Island on its west side but that would bring us closer to the coming weather system so the decision was made we would keep our course to North-east motoring and motor-sailing as necessary to get us closer to the Malta channel as fast as possible to avoid getting caught under the influence of the system too early.
The wind was cold, the skies grey and a very fine drizzle kept the cockpit damp for most of the passage. Despite wearing our foul weather gear and several warm layers it felt like winter sailing, only the new cockpit cushions and our warm sleeping bags could keep us comfortable. A hell of a difference from the previous seasons, our cockpit was now much more comfortable even in these conditions.
Settling again to the night shifts schedules was not easy, after all, we had spent 6 months tied to the dock and although we had no issues with our sea legs enduring a damp night shift was a big challenge but nothing more than that to report.
As we got close to the Malta channel, close to midday, the wind finally turned a bit in our favour but with so many cargo ships coming in both directions and at speeds above 20 knots we motor-sailed across the shipping lanes and only started sailing once on the other side.
The skies suddenly changed from greyish to a lighter white colour, showing occasionally a bit of the blue sky, it was sunnier and all of a sudden it felt spring had arrived. Even the second night was a bit easier to endure having our final destination already insight.
In the early hours of the morning, we were arriving Siracusa harbour and requesting permission to anchor to the harbourmaster.
At the end of this passage we had motored way more than we wished and made a big dent on our fuel budget but we were happy we were back in Italy the land of great food.