Another long haul across the Eastern Mediterranean
With visas expiring dates approaching, the Covid19 restrictions and including the fact that the Greek borders were closed to all vessels coming from Turkey due to political issues our only option was to sail to Malta.
But Malta has one of the most restrictive rules for pet arrivals in Europe and that meant we needed to arrive within 120h of Ella being administered a “deworming” treatment by a vet (that needs to register it in her pet passport).
The increasing number of infected by Covid19 in Turkey made us fear Malta could change the status of arrivals from Turkey at any moment from not needing quarantine or PCR test 72hours before arrival to needing all the above or worst being denied entry.
All this created an environment of stress.
With Ella’s timeline for arrival in mind, we placed our chance of going on the tail of a Meltemi. We had already missed a much better weather window for the Aegean not even a week earlier due to the paperwork for our new sails not being completed on time.
The 120hours limit imposed by Ella’s entry requirements dictated the passage would have to be completed in 5 days and to get from Marmaris, Turkey to Malta in that amount of time it is necessary to travel at a minimum speed of 5.5knots on a straight line. Ideally, the trip would be done at an average of 6 to 6.5knots to account with time to go to the vet before departure.
All this is very simple in theory but in the real world becomes a bit challenging when it’s very difficult to find a weather window that suits both the Aegean and the Ionian.
Usually, when it’s blowing a Meltemi there’s no wind on the Ionian side and when there are stronger winds in the Ionian usually there’s no wind in the Aegean.
So it’s a fine balance between going on the tail or ahead of a Meltemi and still have winds on the other side.
On the morning of Thursday the 10th we moved to the Customs dock to do the checkout formalities and by 9.30 we were already departing Marmaris.
The next hours would be motoring into the wind, hopefully, things would change by the time we left Turkish waters.
After enduring the entire day motoring close to the Turkish shore, suffering the wind accelerations we were now getting ready to cross the Rhodes Channel.
The mainsail on a reef, because one never knows what might happen with the Meltemi winds and because we haven’t sailed in proper winds for almost a year now, with a full jib we were finally seeing our new sails in action. But the wind was not in the mood and in 1 hour it died off and we furled the jib.
30min later the winds would start picking up and bending to our “nose” as we were smack bang in the middle of the Rhodes Channel negotiating the cargo ships.
We were approaching the area of influence of the Meltemi and coming to the conclusion the Meltemi had not died off as forecasted and was still blowing and creating a very steep and short swell on 2 to 3 seconds period.
We powered through, punching into the waves. At each mile the punch getting stronger and more uncomfortable making you wonder why the heck are we doing this?!
These are not the Atlantic waves, these are the Aegean waves and although they don’t have the fetch and height that the Atlantic ones have these waves have “legs” and old grunge at you.
They are short and steep, close enough to each other to wreak havoc even when they are below 2 meters height.
By nightfall these were not the 1.1 meters maximum as forecasted, these were proper waves!
After enduring the violence of each growing punch a dilemma was presenting itself.
No, it was not if we should seek shelter or turn around. The dilemma was how to deal with a fishing vessel identified on our radar just north of a little island that would force us to either bare way pointing higher into the Meltemi winds or be forced to pass closer to shore and in shallower waters which would probably mean even bigger waves.
A quick discussion and decision was made we would change our heading by 40 degrees and pass south of the island avoiding the problem altogether.
What a difference it made even after no longer being under the shadow area caused by the island. Now we were tackling the waves on a sweet spot allowing us to climb them on an angle and surfing down on the other side.
The next 3-4h became immediately much more comfortable despite the increasing wind speeds.
The darkness of the night kept us guessing what was the real sea state, with the lesson learned that the pitch-black makes our mind perceive conditions usually quite different from reality. Balancing in between a “half full and a half-empty glass”, sometimes ignorance is bliss. Not knowing or not being sure of how high the sea state was we could only say, we have been through worse so let’s keep pushing.
Given that the Greek authorities would not allow us to make landfall even to seek shelter under the blanket of the COVID lockdown restrictions the only option was either continue or return to Turkey and check back in at a cost and with few days left on our visas. Not an option.
The daylight brought us the confirmation the seas had built up quite a bit during the night, way more than any forecasted.
The second day started with big waves and confused seas, but after the moment of “calm” when we passed south of the first island the previous night, we had already decided to pass south of all islands on our route even if that added a bit more distance to cover. That 1-2 h rest from the swell while still making ground was all we could look forward.
The two next islands, however, would throw us a curveball with wind acceleration zones but having read a friends pilot book we prepared just in time dropping the mainsail before getting hit with gale-force winds on the approach to the first island. After that and taking advantage of the protection against the swell we hoisted the main again on a reef 2 and prepared for the next hop. Interestingly enough there was almost no wind on the other side of the island. The 30’s gusts we had on the Eastern side of the island were just mere 5-8 knots on the western side and would keep like that until we got to the second island where the wind bent around the island and came right on our bow instead of between 30-60 degrees starboard.
We carried on beating to the wind, luckily with small seas until we got on the next big open stretch of water between the southern Greek islands and the Peloponnese.
Passing the Peloponnese during the first hours of the morning was a treat, we could identify the cargo vessels and their intended directions easily choosing the best timing to cross their paths without doubts.
This was the turning point of this passage from the Meltemi strong winds and big swells of the Aegean to the calm seas with little wind of the Ionian.
We would try our best to sail but given the time constraints deploying the Code 0C and tack our way through the Ionian was not an option despite the fact we were pretty much on schedule.
The forecast for the Aegean side was not correct, the Meltemi had not yet settled enough to allow us to keep the necessary speed under sail without increasing the time travelling. The forecast for the Ionian was also not correct with lighter winds than expected as a result of the intensity of the Meltemi on the Aegean side.
Once again factors external to us were imposing us a schedule and sailing doesn’t go well with such schedules, what goes well with such schedules is motor sailing.
So here we were once again motor sailing across the entire Eastern Mediterranean.
It was now Saturday morning, the third day of the passage and we had just crossed the south of the Peloponnese, navigating through the convoy of cargo ships that use that same route to head up the Adriatic or out of the Med. This would be our last sight of land for the next 3 days and also the last time we would be in such close proximity of other vessels until the last 12h of the passage.
We kept motoring at good speeds, not even enough wind to justify unfurling the headsail and try to squeeze a little bit more speed.
By Sunday morning the wind finally showed signs that matched the forecast and we managed to squeeze a couple of hours of sailing but once again it didn’t last. The winds became erratic, generally light with occasional stronger gusts, the swell, however, started growing and coming from 3 different directions at the same time.
Nothing on our forecast now 4 days old seemed to explain why.
On the horizon line, we could see heavy storm clouds.
Finally, the fifth day of the passage arrived and the clouds on the horizon had intensified but were far so we decided not to worry too much about them. It started as an uneventful day motor sailing with crossed swells, mid-morning a spray of water ahead of us grabbed our attention we couldn’t immediately tell what it was.
A second spray confirmed it couldn’t be dolphins hunting or jumping, it was too big.
Then all of a sudden a third spray over the water and then we see a dorsal fin and a huge tail as a whale dived.
We immediately gybed to try to allow more room for the whale. It was a huge whale.
Research later would confirm we had just seen a Sperm whale!
That was the highlight of the day, what would mark the 12h to go milestone. From that moment on the conditions kept aggravating. The swell getting bigger and more confused still coming from 3 different directions and the wind gaining speed, the sea sprays a constant. By nightfall we had completely dropped all sails the thick storm clouds were fast approaching, the radar was already showing the storm cells all within 1-2 nautical miles from us.
For hours we accelerated and motored at 2000 RPMs right on the edge of the system, the waves getting bigger as we started getting into shallow waters the winds nearing gale force, and then one by one the AIS signal of the cargo ships anchored in front of Valletta started showing up and they were so many. We would have to track north, towards the storm system to go around them.
It was already late night when we made the sight of them, as we approached we could see they were with a good distance between them and after a big discussion we decided to go between them to cut our way shorter, the winds were still getting stronger and the swell quite violent.
I took the task of adjusting the autopilot while John was guiding me since visibility was reduced with all the sea spray and the bobbing caused by the swell. To get to the helm I needed to get on my knees because I simply could keep enough balance to move from the protection of the cockpit area near the spray hood to the aft of the cockpit even holding on to the cockpit table and seat.
As we were passing in front of the first ship, John says: "I think the cargo ship might be picking up anchor!", a moment of panic, it didn’t make sense, the navigation lights weren’t on, the AIS indicated they were at anchor and not moving but yet it seemed they were indeed moving. The winds and swell were so strong that all cargos were "snaking" at anchor in such a visible way that in the middle of all that chaos’s it felt they were moving forward but I was just an illusion.
We reached the 12 nautical miles line where we are supposed to contact Port Control to request permission to enter the port. They immediately asked where were we coming from and if we had submitted the health declaration 24h before. We said yes.
We had requested some friends assistance for this and they promised us they would not fail, but this grumpy guy immediately said he had not received the go-ahead from the medical authorities. I knew he was lying, he had not even wait a moment to say he had not received it after I said we had sent it. Upon my insistence, he told me to contact my marina/agent for them to send over again. I replied that was not possible because we didn’t have mobile network. His reply was to keep trying and call him back when we were 1 nautical mile from the breakwater.
It took us 2h to cover that distance, when we called him again he insisted again he had not received the document, we replied that the marina office was closed at those hours only the 24h assistance mariners were available and they would not have access to that info. He then asked if we already knew what was our berth. We replied no, because we were still waiting for his permission to enter the port, what would be the point of assigning a berth if we had not been granted permission. Annoyed he simply replied to go ahead, go to your marina and proceed to check in first thing in the morning.
John took the helm and hand steered us through the breakwater while surfing down the waves in pitch black conditions. The passage looked so small, the only thing we could see was the bright red in green but we couldn’t get a sense of depth, our only assurance was that if a cargo ship could enter so could we after all were are tiny compared to them.
The moment we were behind the safety of the breakwater we turned into the first bay and dropped anchor.
We were safely anchored in Valletta, Malta, finally!
A few minutes later we noticed there was a free WiFi network available and despite being nearly 5 am we downloaded the latest weather forecast.
With horror we saw that a cyclone had just formed south of Malta near the coast of Libya, the forecast for the next 24h and following days clearly showed that a Medicane was forming and that it would track on a northeast heading towards Greece and growing to a size that would affect the entire Ionian Sea. Immediately we understood that the weather conditions we experienced were already part of this system and if we had been slower on our passage we would have been caught in the middle of it.
On that moment we realised that our friends that were supposed to have departed Datça, Turkey around the time we passed nearby could be in trouble. We searched for them on marine traffic, the last time their AIS had been identified by a repeater was near the island of Santorini precisely 24h after we had passed the island. We could only hope they had managed to stop illegally in Greece.
We texted everyone we knew in Turkey asking if anyone knew where they were. No one knew.
The answer to that would come the following day the 16th around lunchtime when I received what it was a lost message dated from Thursday (the day of our departure from Turkey) that had not been uploaded on that day. This was a sign that our friends were somewhere safe, but where?
We would only find out on the entire details on the morning of the following day when our friends managed to text us telling the devastating news.
They had been caught in the Medicane and had to abandon their yacht and be rescued by a cargo ship and were on route back to Turkey.