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We took a ‘slightly’ different approach this time. We participated in an offshore cruising trip, organised by Ultra Sailing. The trip brought us from Split (Croatia) via various Italian harbours to La Valletta on Malta (and back). The distance covered was over 1.100 nautical miles in all, 2.000 kilometres.

Sailing the high seas requires a different ship. Our choice was a Bénéteau 50. A good and stable ship, with all the facilities required for a trip like this. Our route can be found here. We had a crew of 9, including a professional skipper with experience on this route. Myself, I was one of the watch leaders. The trip took 2 weeks to complete.

We took hundreds of photos during this trip. It takes me some time to sort them out. For this first version of the story I have just selected a few, more will follow!

Day 1 : Marina Kaštela (Split)

During this day the crew arrives from various directions. 9 people, 4 nationalities. There is time to prepare the boat and shop for provisions. During the day, a strong Bura wind (unusual for this time of the year) blows. Like in most of Europe, spring has been cold, wet and windy in Croatia. We plan to leave tomorrow morning. Not all participants are experienced sailors. Therefore it seems best to get to know the boat during daylight, and not immediately jump into a nightshift.

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Day 2 : At Sea (or was it Customs?)

Due to weather and some last minute shopping, it is 1130 before we drop our moorings and leave Marina Kaštela. During the morning we experience a rare weather phenomenon, the so-called ‘Black Bura’. It comes with very dark and threatening clouds, and usually brings bad weather.

Around noon we moor at the customs pier in the harbour of Split. That takes a bit longer than we anticipated. We are leaving the A1 sea area (coastal) and move into A2 and A3 territory (offshore). Therefore, the authorities check whether our boat, the facilities on board, and the crew meet the required regulations. They even get in the harbourmaster out of a meeting with a visiting government minister to check our papers – the first time in six years that anybody takes a look at my skipper’s license!

In the end, we are cleared to leave at around 1600. Which we are eager to do by now. We first pass Splitska Vrata, the channel between Brač and Šolta, and set a course for Lastovo. By the time we reach this island the night watch system is operational. We run three shifts of three persons each: one watch leader and two crew.

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Day 3 : Arriving in Brindisi (Italy)

The night brought some nice sailing conditions, north-westerly winds, 15 – 20 knots. However, the waves were two meters plus. This being the first night, it brought along a few cases of seasickness. While adjusting to the ‘bumpy ride’ on the water, most people (myself included) do not get much sleep.

My team was on watch from 0200 – 0500. A beautiful starry night with a small moon. Some ships on the horizon, but nothing close enough to be a risk. Around 0230 we have our first encounter with a group of dolphins. We see their shadows around the boat, see and hear them jumping around the boat and hear that special ‘snapping’ sound when they breathe. We do not know it at the time, but it is the first of many encounters. We saw groups of dolphins on every day we were on the water. Our course is south-east. We keep the Scorpio constellation over our bow for most of the night.

Around 1130 in the morning (during my second watch) we get our first glimpse of the Italian coast, and hoist the courtesy flag. Our plan is to make it to Brindisi harbour today (course 140), since some heavy weather is expected (40 knots wind from the south, Sirocco).

By the end of the afternoon we reach Brindisi. The seaside looks like any other industrial port on this planet. Inside, there are some beautiful old fortifications and a typical Italian town. In the Roman days, Brindisi was the end of the Via Appia. Brindisi is the only real natural harbour on the Italian peninsula. We moor along the city quay, watched by large numbers of Italians who are there for their Sunday afternoon stroll and ice-cream.

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Day 4 : Brindisi to Otranto

In the morning, the skipper and I go to check the weather forecast at the harbourmaster’s office. The prediction is 17 – 20 knots from the south-east (5 Beaufort), and a moderate to rough sea. We decide to go out and try our luck. After filling up the diesel tanks we leave the harbour and sail in a southerly direction, which requires frequent tacking and hard work.

Just before dark we are joined by a large group of dolphins. Around 2030 we arrive in Otranto, where we moor in front of the coastguard offices (Guardia Costiera), by far the most quiet corner of the harbour in terms of wind and waves.

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Day 5 : Otranto

Due to unfavourable weather conditions (strong wind and heavy seas from the south and south-west, straight on our bow) we are stuck in Otranto for the day. We spend the day with R&R (rest and recreation) and prepare the boat for the next leg. Otranto is a nice-looking town, but rather empty at this time of the year.

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Day 6 : Course Southwest

We wake up in completely different conditions. The sun is out, and it makes everything look a lot friendlier. We use the occasion to put out our clothes to dry for a couple of hours.

Around 1130 we leave Otranto harbour in a southerly direction, but not after a Carabinieri officer (that looks like a general in his shiny uniform) has put a number of stamps in the non-EU passports on board… There is little wind, so we motor south in the direction of Capo Santa Maria de Leuca, the south-eastern tip of Italy. The coast is green and hilly, with a small village every now and then.

We reach the cape at around 1500. My team takes first watch. The wind is north-westerly, around 12 knots, the sea is calm, and we hoist the mainsail and roll out the genua. We sail in south-westerly direction, course 222. Shipping traffic is busy here, a large number of cargo ships and fishermen.

After our watch, there is pasta and Bolognese sauce… We do a further watch from 2100 – 2300 as our ship slowly but steadily crosses the Ionian Sea.

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Day 7 : At Sea

Steady routine. On watch from 0300 – 0500 and 0900 – 1100. The watches were quiet, keeping an eye on the shipping traffic, especially the fishermen. Their courses are less predictable than the courses of the large freighters we see pass along the horizon. Trying to get some sleep in between watches, and waking up with the smell of freshly baked pancakes and with dolphins swimming around our boat again... We find the 2 hours on 4 hours off schedule more comfortable than the earlier 3 hours on 6 hours off.

In the morning the wind changes to south-south-west, 15 knots. That is on our bow, straight from the direction where we need to go. Therefore, we have no other choice than starting the engine.

During our afternoon watch, all of a sudden the engine of our ship stops. Fortunately, the wind has just turned to south-east, 12 – 15 knots, so we just hoisted the sails anyway. After some searching, we find the likely cause. The boat has two diesel tanks. After one was empty, and before the system switched to the other tank, the engine probably gulped in some air. We drain the engine and ten minutes later the engine is again in a working condition.

Risotto in the evening. Who ever said that food on board can not be nice…?

We expect to arrive in Malta somewhere during the early hours of the morning. Pending weather, ship and crew conditions…

Day 8 : Arrival at Valletta (Malta)

During the night the wind becomes variable, which means that we regularly have to change the sails. The sea was calm, the shipping traffic however was quite dense. Especially fishermen ‘racing’ from left to right, but there is also a lot of cargo traffic in the waters between Sicily and Malta.

Shortly after my watch starts at 0300 we see the first lights of Malta at the horizon. Anticipation grows as we come closer. We even decide to let the next watch sleep: we want to bring the ship in ourselves. The approach to Malta is gorgeous: the old castles, fortresses and churches with their lights are visible from miles away.

Several miles from the harbour we call Valletta Port Control via VHF to announce our arrival. They give us information regarding the current movements of other (bigger) boats, which helps us to stay clear. Around 0530 we glide between the breakwaters of Valletta’s eastern harbour. Instantly the waves stop, and a serene tranquillity comes over our ship. The rolling stops as we glide slowly into this harbour. It has a rich history, and we see the places where the ships of the Knights of St. John were moored when they were not fighting the Ottomans.

We moor our ship in Grand Harbour Marina in Vittoriosa, across the bay from Valletta and with a great view on the city and the Fortress San Angelo. After mooring, the boat becomes very quiet except for the snoring of people trying to catch up on their sleep...

Showers (private bathrooms!), laundry, cleaning the boat, a well-deserved beer, lunch… Time flies when you are having fun.

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Day 9 : Valletta (Malta)

Rest and recreation in Valletta. We take a water taxi to the city. These water taxis are traditional Maltese wooden boats, the so-called ‘dghajsa’, but with an outboard engine.

Strolling around you feel the history in the buildings and fortresses. For years and years Malta has not paid much attention to its heritage. Fortunately, that is changing rapidly now. We visit the Maritime Museum and the Archaeological Museum, and have a stroll around the city.

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Day 10 : Valletta (Malta)

Further rest and recreation in Valletta. In the afternoon we take delivery of fuel. Given that the only nautical petrol station is closed for renovations, we do the traditional bunkering. It requires that we move the boat out of the Marina to the quay, after which a fuel truck shows up.

During the days in Valletta we kept a close eye on the weather map. Leaving on Monday shows a favourable weather-window, at least according to the prognoses…

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Day 11 : Valetta to Siracuse (Italy) and onwards

The alarm set for 0600, and by 0630 everybody was up (but not yet running…) – despite last night’s drinks in the cockpit. Around 0730 we drop our moorings. The trip back to Croatia has begun.

Valletta Port Control kept us waiting still. We slowly circled the harbour several times while they tried to get confirmation from Customs that we were properly cleared out. Of course we did, so around 0800 we got the permission to leave the harbour. Outside the breakwater, conditions were perfect for sailing. Wind from the north-west, 15 – 18 knots, so the sails went up in no-time. After the days of rest and recreation, everybody was eager for some action. Course 040, speed 7 – 8 knots.

After only a few hours at sea, we really were in our sailing-routine again. For a while we got company from a tired pigeon, which used our foredeck as a resting place. But for the rest it was just us and an occasional ship on the horizon.

Today, we also saw a lot of sea turtles. Difficult to photograph: they are small and slow, we are a lot faster.

Later that day, the wind left us, returning later from the north-east. On our bow, so motoring again… That evening, we stop for a few hours in Siracuse on Sicily. Better winds are predicted for later that night, so we want to leave again at 0200. We have a dinner, and catch some sleep before the watch system disrupts our sleeping pattern again…

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Day 12 : Towards Roccella Ionica (Italy)

A beautiful sailing day. We had the morning watch, 0400 – 0600. First, that brought us the remainders of a beautiful starry night with a very clear Milky Way. Then daybreak, and then sunrise. A glimpse of Etna volcano (including smoke plume) on the horizon. And during all this we were under sail (with small reefs on the genua) in 30 knots of wind from the north-north-west. Course 040, boat speed 8 knots. And again, dolphins are swimming around the boat. Life does not get much better than this!

However, the Mediterranean Sea and the Adriatic Sea have some things in common. Conditions can change rapidly here. Around 1100 the wind turns again to the north-east (15 knots), straight on our bow. Again, we need our engine.

By now, we sail under the coast of Calabria, the southern region of Italy. We have covered 160 nautical miles since leaving Valletta.

By 1130 we receive a new weather forecast. It does not look good for us. The wind will increase further, and a storm is predicted for the Gulf of Taranto, that we need to pass. We decide to aim for the small yacht harbour at Roccella Ionica, a small town further down the coast.

Around 1500 we arrive in this harbour. Due to the strong winds, it takes some effort to moor the boat. By now, there is a full storm outside. Every couple of hours we check the weather maps. We now also see a storm developing in the Adriatic Sea, which we need to cross on our way back to Croatia. All we can do now is sit and wait, which is made easier by a far better than expected dinner at the small restaurant near the harbour (the only restaurant, we find out…). You order pizza per half meter…

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Day 13 : At Sea and at Crotone

At 0600 we leave the harbour of Roccella Ionica. The morning was very quiet: sunny, warm, calm (rippled) sea and no wind. Within hours, we have a northerly wind of 15 – 20 knots and are sailing along nicely.

Our first destination for today is Crotone, on the coast of the Gulf of Taranto, where we want to load fuel. After that our course will be east-north-east for Capo Santa Maria de Leuca, the south-eastern tip of Italy.

Around noon the wind changes to south-south-west and increases to 25 – 30 knots. Excellent sailing conditions! We reach Crotone at 1430, only to find out that the petrol station is closed until 1530 (siesta…). We use the time available for cooking a big pot of chicken curry for dinner that night.

Leaving Crotone at 1600 we nearly forget one of our crew members, who went ashore to drop the garbage. Fortunately we find out in time… During the next hours, we have several encounters with groups of dolphins again.

After dinner, at 1900, the watch system starts again. My team has 1900 – 2100. Darkness still comes early, and it is a beautiful moonlit night. Our course is 055, wind 20 knots from south-east.

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Day 14 : Storm in the Adriatic

Our watch from 0100 – 0300 is extremely quiet. Easy sailing conditions, light shipping traffic, calm sea and a moonlit night (the moon is nearly full by now).

When we come up for our 0700 – 0900 watch, conditions are completely different. The ship has just rounded Capo Santa Maria de Leuca. Waves have increased and are now moderate (4 on the Douglas scale, up to 2,5 meters). The wind has increased to 25 – 35 knots (around 7 Beaufort). Obviously, the predicted storm for the Adriatic Sea has arrived early.

It becomes a day of very hard work. During the day, sea conditions worsen to very rough (6 on the Douglas scale, waves up to 6 meters). The wind increases to 8 Beaufort, with gusts of up to 42 knots (9 Beaufort). We sail under a small jib and without a mainsail. Still we record speeds in the double digits – our average speed during this day is well over 9 knots. Our record speed was 18,4 knots while surfing from a wave. That is just over 34 kilometres per hour, an incredible speed for a boat this size! I do not know whether it was storm related, but we saw dolphins at least ten times during this day. I do not have much time to take notice, however. Not all crew members can take their turn on the rudder in these conditions, and I have to take extra turns which are not physically hard work, but requires constant concentration.

Around 1930 we know we are in the vicinity of Cavtat, the most southern town of Croatia. However, we are unable to find it… There are few beacons along this part of the coast, it is dark and raining, the 6 metre waves make that we do not even see the mainland at all time. We find the situation too risky to enter this rather tricky harbour, and decide to press on for Dubrovnik.

By 2030 we have Dubrovnik in sight. Even here we have to take care to find the right beacons marking the entry to the harbour, which is marked by rocks on all sides. However, by 2000 we enter Velika Vrata and pass between Rat Bezdanj and the island of Grebeni. Some 15 minutes later we pass under the famous bridge.

By 2130 we arrive at ACI Marina Dubrovnik. Nobody responded to our calls via VHF and mobile phone, so we pick our own spot along the quay and moor the boat ourselves. Back on Croatian soil. Time for a quick shower, and then for a long sleep…

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Day 15 : Dubrovnik – the end…

We have only one day left for our trip back to Split. However, the weather forecast looks the same as yesterday. Therefore, we end this fantastic sailing voyage here and travel back to Split via land.

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