Overnight Passages - September 2004

Our explorations these past four months have been characterized by many 'firsts' including our first unaccompanied overnight passage on Beedahbun; and, our first sail without the companionship of our loyal, four-legged first mate, Sydney. 

We got our first taste of overnight passage making in May 1998 when we helped another couple crew their 52-foot sloop from the US Virgin Islands to the Chesapeake Bay – an 18-day passage during which the seas remained near flat and the winds were barely a breath in strength.  That uneventful orientation to overnight passage-making gave us plenty of time to manually plot and double-check our course against then new technology, a GPS.  We learned the ‘rules of the road’ when on the sea according to the Colregs (The International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea 1972) and became proficient in identifying various the types of vessels under way according to their red, green and white light configurations.  I learned how to identify dozens of constellations under clear night skies and I marveled that sunset and sunrise could look so spectacularly different from one day to the next.

Three years passed between that first extended voyage and our first overnight passage aboard our own vessel, Beedahbun.  Good friends who were as eager for their first overnight passage as we had been for ours a few years earlier rendezvoused with us in Puerto Rico where we staged for crossing the infamous body of water between Boqueron and the Dominican Republic.  Sydney was with the four of us when we made the 27-hour passage across the Mona Passage and made landfall at Cayo Levanta (Bacardi Island) in the Bay of Samana.  We shared one more overnight before our friends departed from Providenciales on Grand Turk.  For the remainder of our voyage on a northwestern track and until we sailed through the cut at Palm Beach Florida, we dropped anchor every night so our four-legged first mate was assured twice daily trips ashore.

Thoughts about those earlier overnight passages lingered as we prepared for our first overnight passage on the Med in June 2004.  I'd be lying if I said I didn't have a little apprehension about the overnight voyage that lay ahead.  Almost everyone we know who has traversed these waters has a spine-chilling story to tell - either their own or that of another. 

The Ligurian Sea extends from the French Riviera to Corsica and east to Italy’s Tuscan coast. The Italian Riviera which is believed to have originated in San Remo lies within this area as does the Bay of Genoa.  With the Mediterranean Sea bordering its west boundaries, the Ligurian can be very inhospitable during and immediately following a mistral, the dreaded gale-force wind that moves in from the west at lightning speed and churns up the seas from one to seven days straight depending on its mood. Even cruise ships and cruise ship- sized ferries remain in port when the mistral is on an extended rampage. 


We chose our weather window with great care.  The sun was still high in the west when we departed San Remo at 7 pm with and the conditions could not have been more benign: winds were 0 to Force 1 from the east and predicted to remain the same, and the seas were flat.  In the absence of wind we motored with a full mainsail for added stability and to catch a whisper of any wind in our favor. It would have been lovely to have had force 3 to 4 winds on the beam - the perfect strength for night passages - but in the Med you never, ever wish for more wind.  Aeolus is an extremist that by all accounts has only two wind strengths: none or full force - I kid you not.  This is reinforced by the well-known axiom that ‘one motors from gale-to-gale in the Med’. 

Daylight persisted for a few more hours after our departure which gave us enough time to steer clear of visible fishing pots and avoid snagging a net on our propeller. The sun set on the horizon and transformed the sky from shades of orange and peach to a purplish grey hue that eventually faded to a persistent pewter haze before the black of the night set in. These few hours before darkness settled were busy ones on our little boat.  Everything that was readied for the passage before we left port was double and triple checked; hatches were locked tight to prevent moisture from getting into the cabin; the bilge pump was tested; the radar was switched on and readied for duty; a VHF radio check was made by asking any vessel listening in to confirm they could hear our transmission; the man-overboard bag was placed in an accessible position and last but not least inflatable life vests were donned and clipped to strategically positioned life lines.  A hard rule on our boat is that anyone who is above deck between dusk and dawn be clad in a life-vest and hooked to lines that will prevent a fall overboard in the event a wave, wake or sudden gust provides a jolt of reality.  

There were some anxious moments when the beacons affixed to a string of fishing pots dead ahead began blinking rapidly at the same time that a thickly accented voice asked us to change and hold our course indefinitely - something we could not do lest we didn't mind making landfall in the Balearic Islands a couple of hundred miles west!

Shortly after darkness descended, a near-full moon began its ascent leaving a trail of glitter on seas that barely rippled.  A short while later I was overcome with angst when I spotted what looked to be a well-lit but misplaced town in the distance.  We should not have been anywhere near land!  Binoculars confirmed that this cluster of tiny glimmering white lights was an illusion caused by the moons rays being reflected from the seas surface - in the distance it looked as though millions of diamonds were bouncing upon a gigantic trampoline.

Several hours later as the moon settled on the horizon, its shimmer fading to a warm glow, a pod of six or more dolphin suddenly leapt from the sea off our port side and swam alongside us for a few minutes performing acrobatics that had us clapping for more.  I've always considered the appearance of dolphins at sea to be a good omen and their presence calmed an imagination that had threatened to get away from me moments earlier.

About an hour before first light illuminated the horizon, a strange haze enveloped us and I became completely disoriented.  George, our auto-pilot, had stopped working about an hour out of San Remo and I was taking my turn at the helm while Jim napped.  When Jim came on deck to relieve me he found me sailing the boat in the opposite direction!  Some type of magnetic anomaly had thrown our compasses out of whack.  We would learn several months later that this was a not unheard of phenomenon that had long left mariners and physicists alike perplexed. 

Despite the distraction of tending to the helm, there were extended periods when I was acutely aware of the several thousand feet or more of black water below our keel and the infinite expanse of starry sky above.  With not a light on the horizon nor a speck on the radar one cannot help but feel a little (a lot!) vulnerable.   This was accompanied by long periods of reflection and more than a little stock-taking.  As Beedahbun hummed along at just under 7 knots, the diesel engine barely interrupting the quiet, we thought aloud about the people, pets, places and things that have shaped our past and present and conspired to make our lives busy and bountiful.    

I'm a dreamer and schemer by nature and Jim hears about every idea from the sublime to the ridiculous and has never once scoffed at one.  When it's just you with the person you love most and an infinite universe all around, anything and everything seems possible, and as our lives have proven, indeed is.

We dropped anchor at 3 pm the following afternoon off the northern coast of the Italian island of Elba.  During that 20-hour period we logged 136 nautical miles (289 km) - roughly the same distance as a return trip between our home in the Blue Mountains, Ontario Canada and the city of Toronto.  The combined travel time between those two points takes about 3 and 1/2 hours by car. To put this in context for our non-cruising friends and family members, I ask them to try to imagine what it would be like to spend twenty hours driving between two points of land without any evidence of life: no buildings, gas stations, power lines, and no lights of any kind save the stars above.  Alone in the dark at sea the world is at its quietest and seems so very big.

Our next overnight passage took us from the southwest tip of Sicily to the southern-most tip of Sardinia, again under a near-full moon and once again in near-perfect winds and seas. Slightly longer than our previous transit, this passage was characterized by far less boat traffic, and a heightened sense of vulnerability precipitated by our proximity to Tunisia and its much-rumored phantom fleet of illegal fishing and people-smuggling boats.  In the darkest hours of the morning we once again were visited by a pod of dolphins off the starboard beam and they once again soothed my spirits.  

This passage proved to be a time of consolidation and meaning-making - not only of recent experiences and the meaning we attributed to these but as well, to events and experiences both recent and in the past that will no doubt conspire to shape our future.  We reflected for example, on our decision while in the Aeolian Islands just off Sicily’s northwestern coast, to let a coin toss decide whether we would continue through the Straits of Massena and make for Croatia, or, if we would explore Sicily’s western coast before crossing to Sardinia and eventually returning to France.  Our motivation to cruise to Croatia and look for a winter berth in Brindisi or Bari came more from a sense of guilt that we had not been more adventurous to this point than from a sincere desire to leave France.  We missed France and our four months away from all things French reinforced our yearning to return.  Our explorations of Italy’s western coast and several of its offshore islands had been richly rewarded and we were already talking about places we wanted to re-visit. What emerged from our meaning-making discussions during those long hours at sea is that we were not yet ready to immerse in a different country, culture and language.  I confessed to wanting to pause and integrate all we’d discovered and not ‘muck it up’ with cultural overload.

I am often asked whether or not I get bored on long passages and in particular during night watches.  To say there is never a dull moment is not an exaggeration but this can also be a bit deceiving.  Any light on the horizon attracts our attention until it can no longer be seen. As long a light it is visible, its course is tracked and we scour our Colregs to confirm our interpretation of the light configurations.  Theoretically, any vessel that we can see with the naked eye should be visible on our radar but this is not always the case.  All our senses are always on full alert for the vessels we cannot see but that our radar shows as closing in on us. These are usually fishing boats that are conserving power as they drift along with their motor off and haul in their catch.  On occasion we've confirmed the interloper to be a sailboat running without lights to conserve battery power. 

The residual from a three-day mistral greeted us on our next overnight passage between Corsica’s northwest coast and the Iles de Porquerolles.  Good friends on another boat and with whom we’d rendezvoused a few days prior were intent on making the passage regardless of the conditions.  We found ourselves with a dilemma: do we remain behind and trust our own interpretation of the conditions, or, do we defer to another with vastly more experience as passage-makers?  Our friends depended on a couple of sources for weather information and these were consistent with those that were being forecast on VHF 23.  We were all in agreement that weather predictions are not infallible however, they asserted, the prevailing conditions were benign compared to what they had experienced many times when making long passages.  My gut instinct told us to stay in port until wind and seas actually followed the predicted path.   

The Mediterranean Sea is renowned for its steep, choppy waves that although many times smaller than the largest of swells encountered on the Atlantic Ocean, are far more treacherous owing to the short distance between waves. In addition, the residual chop action that lingers long after a Mistral has blown through can give vessel and crew a pounding.

Mindful of the experience of the crew on our buddy boat, we set out only to have both vessels turn around and return to port where we remained for a few more hours while the seas subside a little.  When we eventually up-anchored and resumed our passage, a near-full moon remained obscured by cloud for the first several hours of our journey and this was just was well; if I had been able to see the waves that we pounded into I’m sure we would have turned back and remained in port a little longer.  When the time the moon finally emerged, we were held hostage by silver-fringed waves whose dance had slowed to a waltz by the time we reached our destined port.

I have been asked if in hindsight we should have stayed in port a little longer until wind and waves had settled.  Speaking honestly, I think we let our judgment become clouded by pride and obligation.  Our friends were much more experienced cruisers than we and in fact they loved wild weather!  For them the weather conditions presented another exciting challenge. In our case, we let pride over-rule our gut instinct.  At the same time however, if we had chosen to remain in port we would have missed the opportunity to be reminded of what our little boat and her crew are capable of handling. 

Once at anchor off Iles de Porquerolles and after a welcome nap, we rendezvoused on our boat to debrief from the passage, break bread and raise a few glasses. We all knew that it would be many years before we shared an anchorage and swapped tales once again.  Later that day as we sailed towards our final destination, I suddenly remembered that it was Friday the 13th.  No sooner had I conveyed this reminder on the VHF when Jim spotted dolphins off our starboard.  A near-full moon on Friday the 13th, and dolphins alongside to boot: good omens for passage making to be sure.