Crossing the Messina Strait
Day 1 (2022-04-08) staging
After having waited for a westerly blow to pass the day after our arrival to Siracusa, it was now time for us to get moving again.
The previous day we had poured our attention over the weather forecasts, the pilot book, the online resources regarding anchorages and most importantly the website http://www.correntidellostretto.it, trying to make our decision.
Go north through the Messina Strait or around the south of Sicily.
If we decided to go around the island we would have limited options of where to anchor for protection and there was a few blows showing on the forecast either from south east or from north west. If we decided to go through the Messina we had one small window of opportunity where the winds would be less strong against current or we would have to wait at least one week for the winds and currents to align.
After much consideration we decided to take the small weather window of opportunity and head towards the Messina Strait.
The plan for the day was, besides doing a quick run to Lidl early morning for a stock up, to head north to Taormina where we would stop for the night.
We had a slug of a day suffering the effects of the predominant northerly current that runs through the strait. A day fighting up to 2knots of current with fluky winds.
We arrived late afternoon just in time to get the latest weather forecast update and confirm our plan of action for the following day. The view of the village up on the mountain was one out of romantic movie but unfortunately we could not go visit it if we were to keep to our schedule.
We were in bed quite early. The following morning we needed to be up at 4am to be able to get to the strait on time to complete the crossing as per our plan.
After much analysis of the info provided on the website http://www.correntidellostretto.it and the forecast we decided that our best chance to cross the strait was a small weather window on the morning of the 9th of April.
On this morning the prevailing winds from north would be weak and would only starting to pickup around slack tide. While the currents at the strait would run from south to north late in the morning.
We were on a waxing moon cycle meaning the currents in any direction were not at their peak strength.
In theory, if we could enter the Messina TSS one hour before slack tide we would have still some current against us but would have marginal wind strength against us. Meaning we should be able to keep a speed close to 4-5 knots until slack tide.
Then as the winds should pickup, the current against us would be either diminishing considerably or already changing in our favour and hopefully we could still make way even if slowly.
By the time we estimated we would be half way through the strait and the winds getting stronger the current would not be no longer such an issue.
Basically the window of opportunity was actually just before having the currents fully in our favour.
Waiting for the currents to be in our favour would mean strong head winds.
And wind against current is never a brilliant idea as it can raise very difficult seas, strong winds against strongish current and whirlpools added to the mix could be a hell of a ride!
If we failed this opportunity we would not have another opportunity to cross to the other side of Sicily for at least a week.
Day 2 (2022-04-09) the crossing
The day started early at 4am, by 4.30am we had already bent the cape in Taormina and were motoring towards the strait as close as comfortable to the coast in the pitch black (worrying deeply about fishing pots and nets) to avoid getting the strongest of the currents. It would take us five hours to get to the TSS (traffic Separation Scheme) zone and to be officially inside the strait.
The current against us was a bit more than 1 knot and it would get to a peak of 2 knots (just after the high water time for the currents running from north to south) as we slowly approached the straits.
We saw a few fishing boats, fishing for squid I guess given the lights they were using but nothing to stress us.
The wind was just a very gentle breeze on the nose, hopefully it would stay like that most of the way.
As planned, we managed to get close to the TSS one hour before slack tide and just as the winds had started slowly picking up a bit more around 10 knots at that time.
We called Messina VTS (authorities that regulate the traffic in the TSS) on the VHF radio on channel 16. After a few calls back and forward requesting details regarding our yacht they told us to proceed north on the Calabrian side of the strait (east side) inshore traffic zone (a designated area next to the main traffic zone for local/coastal traffic and vessels that cannot keep the same speed as the cargo and ferries)
That was not our intention so a bit more discussion over the VHF and us explaining that it would be more convenient to proceed on the Sicilian side (west side) inshore traffic zone due to the forecasted winds and the currents, they accepted our request and told us to keep a watch on channel 16 and 10 during our crossing.
From our study, the Calabrian side of the strait keeps stronger currents running north to south (up to 2 knots) even when the predominant current is already running in the opposite way.
We negotiated the first ferries and giggled noticing that one of the ferries AIS (Automatic Identification System) icon was showing it backwards to the direction the ferry was moving, something easily understandable if you notice that this type of ferry that connects two shores doesn’t actually turn around, just going forward in one direction and in reverse on the opposite saving time on manoeuvres I guess. Later in the morning we would listen a big Cargo ship having an absolute fit on VHF channel 16 with this ferry because of this peculiarity (I can only guess it messes up with their collision avoidance systems to have a boat coming in their direction in reverse).
We entered the TSS one hour before slack tide with the winds starting to pickup as per the forecast, we could feel the currents against us still slowing us down. We could see the very small and very close ripples with white caps all around us, caused by the current and wind coming from north.
As we progressed our crossing we started also seeing and feeling the numerous whirlpools that the Messina Strait is famous for. The boat heading and course being considerably affected by them.
By now we were smack bang on slack time and the current was changing in our favour and still the progress was slow and disturbed by the several whirlpools.
As we approached Messina harbour we were arriving one of the most affected areas by these peculiarities of this trench of water. The whirlpools even at slack tide and on a mid cycle waxing moon were strong enough to whirl us around a little bit.
At this point we experienced 3 knots of current against us. Running the engine at 2000RPMs and we were only doing slightly above 3 knots of speed over ground!
The winds were gusting 15knots with a mean wind of 8 knots and occasional katabatic winds up to 25 knots.
One could only imagine how hard crossing the strait can be when the conditions are not right, specially doing it from south to north.
Just after passing Messina harbour we found ourselves surrounded by small fishing vessels, some of them rowing. There must have been a frenzy of fish in the strait at that point because it is forbidden to fish or anchor in the strait, but here we were now negotiating a myriad of small craft paying no attention to the surrounding traffic.
By the time we were nearby Charybdis area (one of the most challenging ones in terms of whirlpools) the currents running south to north were clearly in force although not strong (because it was mid cycle waxing moon), we had also passed the area where the forecast showed winds contrary to our journey making the rest of passage of the strait easy.
As we bent the Capo Peloro and turned west, we were out of the Messina Strait. We could now hoist our mainsail, open the Jib and make way to Milazzo where we would stop for one day waiting out some extreme strong westerlies.
Crossing the Messina Strait in the conditions we did, in such a short window of opportunity was indeed an interesting one.
***In the spirit of sharing our dreams and experiences we have shared this blog post in the NOFOREIGNLAND.COM website sailors community.