Last crossing of season 2019 - an eventful passage!
Now that it has been a bit over a month since the passages that brought us to another winter in Tunisia it’s time to think about the events that marked the end of the season.
Those events would set the winter jobs priority list and be responsible for another steep learning curve with a big and unexpected price tag.
We left Greece after a month in Preveza installing our new solar panels, preparing/purchasing the necessary items for the winter jobs and enjoying the visit of friends.
The day of the crossing had a favourable but short forecast window and we had planned to enjoy a bit more of Siracusa before the second leg of the journey back to Tunisia and of course, the Greek Gods were not in agreement with that.
As our usual preference on a long passage we departed early in the morning, we were all excited to be back on the move in the direction of open waters even though we had a few hours of motoring ahead of us to get to the wind. The island of Lefkada was creating a huge windless area now that the winds were blowing from the southern quadrant, but once we cleared the area of influence of the island we trimmed the sails and enjoyed the ride.
Halfway to Sicily, we found ourselves in another windless area, engines on we tried to make our way to Siracusa so we could still enjoy a few days in the city before the weather window to complete the crossing closed. Fishing rods out the back the morning would prove itself eventful.
First, we caught a small Mahi-Mahi, not the same size as the one we got at the end of the previous season but a good size one. Shortly after we got a very fat Bonito Tuna. How lucky!
As we were bringing it in, and then all of a sudden, we saw in the horizon a big styrofoam box chasing us, jumping like a dolphin from behind such a bizarre view.
First thought was that it had been caught on one of our fishing rods that we were still trailing, but the direction seemed wrong. We could see that the fishing line was going in the opposite direction.
A moment of confusion and as we looked in the water just behind our stern we could see two white lines parallel to each other trailing behind us.
The horror of all horrors we had just caught a fishing pot or net!
But we were in 3000 meters deep waters how was this possible? We were sure we had not even passed close by the styrofoam box.
We turned the engine off immediately, turn the boat into the wind (the mainsail is up), drop the swimming platform and by laying on it with head hanging down we tried to assess what was going on. It was clear, the white lines, we could see trailing behind us, were caught on the bottom of our keel.
A sense of relief, at least it wasn’t caught in the propeller.
We turned the engine back on and engaged forward and backwards slowly to try and see if the line would lift closer to the surface so we could catch it with our boat hook. After a few attempts we managed to pick the line but it was too heavy to be able to pick the entire apparatus out of the water, our only option was to cut the line and release us from the fishing pot and carry on with our journey.
Less than 5 minutes later I felt that strange vibration I became familiar with on the few occasions we got stuff on the propeller while manoeuvring at anchor. Once again we stop the engine, drop the swimming platform again, but this time (I) Ana had to get in the water.
Quite a scary experience because the boat was still doing around 2 knots with sails up and fuelled by the mainsail. I undressed, stepped down the swim ladder holding myself with my arms and legs while checking the propeller with my goggles. Once again by clicking forward and then reverse we managed to get a little plastic mesh free from the propeller.
The drama was not over yet, within minutes we got an overheating batteries alarm from our Victron equipment after checking and finding the batteries were indeed very hot, we turned the entire boat off and sailed only with the iPad as a navigation tool for a while while we waited for things to cool off and while we thought what to do.
30 minutes later we turned the engine back on, all windows open, a fan pointing at the batteries and trying to drain the batteries as much as possible - we thought the system was not “understanding” that the batteries were at full capacity.
The moment we had a bit more breeze we turned the engine back off and tried to sail to our intended destination, Siracusa. Later the wind on the nose we tried in vain to tack our way there but the forecast was wrong, the wind was coming straight from our destination, the progression would only be possible to achieve at a cost of an insane number of tacks and many hours.
After a few hours trying to make way, we decided that we wouldn’t be able to get to Siracusa in a realistic time and winds were getting a bit more consistently strong so getting to Siracusa even if under engine would be punching into the windy night. Not a very desirable situation when there’s a battery overcharging situation, so a decision was made we were going to change course by 90 degrees get the wind on the beam and sail straight to Rocella Ionica Marina some 75 miles further up the Italian coast, to see what’s wrong with the system.
With a new destination in mind and the winds on the beam, we flew at great speeds even with reefed sails. Only one ferry coming out of Messina Strait gave us a bit of something to worry about when we realised that we would cross their path too slowly and leave us with a very short distance from them despite our good speeds and that changing heading would only slow us down and leave us dead in their way. Nothing that couldn’t easily be solved by calling them over the VHF radio in a polite girly tone ask that if due to the weather conditions they could adjust their course a couple of degrees to pass on our stern since we were under sail. They politely said, of course, they would assist us.
(We usually don’t get caught in these situations but in this case, as the ferries come out of the Messina Strait is hard to understand when are they turning to proceed to their Greek ports. Our strategy is always to get close to their path at an angle but giving a couple of nautical miles distance until they pass us and then we pass on their stern as fast as possible the moment their wake has reduced enough to avoid losing speed at that moment).
At the crack of dawn, with the batteries now cooler we motored the last 5miles to the port, we were dropping anchor in the marina entrance waiting for their advice and assistance berthing.
During the following couple of days, we analysed what had happened with our system. The first thing we noticed once we opened the floorboards above the battery bank was that one of our four batteries was slightly deformed, the top had bloated less than 1 cm but that was enough to understand that we had "killed" the battery. A voltage check confirmed our thoughts, luckily the remaining batteries seemed ok, not perfect but still working fine.
The problem? Bad cable arrangement, breaking all the guidelines of best practices after reviewing online technical data.
We removed the "dead" battery, re-arranged the remaining ones and the cables, unplugged the solar array to avoid another overcharge situation and carried our journey. Using the leg to Siracusa as a test to see if our alternator was playing up or working fine.
With a very light winds forecast, we departed towards Siracusa, under engine and constantly checking the battery bank.
Past mid-night we were dropping anchor in Siracusa with confidence that our alternator was working fine and that the remaining Victron systems were also performing as they are supposed to. After checking the forecast, the decision to proceed with checkout formalities and depart to Tunisia was made and just 16 hours after arriving Siracusa, we were now already departing, keeping in mind that to beat the coming forecast of strong winds blowing through the Sicily channel we needed to keep a pace of at least 6knots SOG (speed over ground) or we would be stuck in Sicily for a few weeks with quite bad weather.
We departed just before sunset and even though the winds weren’t strong we decided as a precaution to go with 1 reef on the mainsail in case the forecast was wrong and the weather came faster than was predicted.
Shortly after leaving Siracusa in the evening we realise that we are sailing towards the lead pack of the Rolex Middle Sea race fleet in the dark of night. A bit of an unsettling experience to see so many boats heading in our direction on radar and then showing up on AIS but not being able to see their navigation lights (for those that like us have navigation lights on the pushpit and pulpit only when they were 2 nautical miles from us we could see them, only the ones that use the tricolour atop the mast were visible in the distance - eye-opening experience). For a few hours, we kept a tight watch but all of the racing yachts have, of course, a great grip on what is ahead of them and although a bit stressful to see them coming at us good speed on downwind sailing we had no problems keeping our heading as suited to us.
After bending the south-east cape of Sicily the only concern was the big cargo ships that cross between Malta and Sicily but once we cleared that area nothing more troubled us, except some yellowfin big tunas of around 30kg that gave John a hell of a fight. On the morning of the second day as we edged closer the Tunisian coast the wind dropped out and we motored the last 5 hours with our arrival at the dock at just after midday.
Another great sail to Tunisia!