Sulphur, fire, storms and sunsets in the Aeolian islands
The Aeolian Islands are comprised of eight islands, two of which have active volcanoes; Vulcano (from which we get the word volcano, not an unimaginatively named island) and Stromboli. This little archipelago just 15 Nautical miles from the north coast of Sicily is a sailing paradise and very popular with boats. It was the first time since arriving in Sicily that we encountered crowded anchorages. It’s possible to anchor alongside any of the islands but, as we discovered during the week, the ancient myths of contrary winds can have resonance for modern day navigation too and an eye should always be kept open for storm warnings! Our week came in like a lamb and went out like a lion.
We arrived from the south in mild conditions, enjoying the passage from our pretty anchorage near Milazzo and wishing for even more wind. We had a good breeze on the nose and at one point got full sail up, enjoying a blissful hour of sailing beautifully at 6.5 to 7 knots, albeit on a slightly altered course. We managed to get the Princess speeding along with 10 to 12 knots of wind on a close reach and congratulated ourselves that she does sail pretty well at this wind speed after all. In Greece in the super sheltered Ionian we had decided that it wasn’t worth putting up the sails for less than 15 knots, so it was nice to adjust that bar. However, as we approached Isola Vulcano the wind dropped away, so we motor sailed along the east coast.
Chris and David in Freecloud had motored along the west coast and told us that they had a spectacular view of the crater and had seen a water spout, a type of local tornado. I can recommend the east coast approach however. Being a volcanic island, the sea bed drops away dramatically making it possible to cruise with comfort very close up along the steep cliffs of the volcano itself. It was completely wild without a single trace of human civilisation and very majestic; green and untamed. I have never been sailing in Scotland so I amused myself by imagining that I was in the Highlands albeit somewhat warmer. After all, Scotland’s volcanic past has produced similar craggy peaks and hills.
We arrived at the anchorage in Porto di Levante on the north of the island and suddenly found ourselves in an anchoring carnival. As it is the best anchorage to access the island, competition for space was extremely high. We had arrived late in the afternoon and Freecloud was already snug and secure at anchor. We attempted to drop the hook next to her but found ourselves swinging dangerously close. A third attempt put us very close to a steel Swiss boat with a charming couple of live aboards. They were close enough to exchange a chat with us as we swung within a couple of metres of their stern. “This boat is steel so if you make contact we will just need new paint” they informed us. We were extremely lucky that they were so tolerant. Later that afternoon, a French charter boat dropped their anchor perilously close to where we had dropped ours. When we shouted out to them that our chains might well be crossed, they promised that they would be leaving by ten the next morning. This was our first lesson in anchoring etiquette; it doesn’t exist in the med. Don’t believe the hasty promises given by the skipper of a boat who is anchoring late under duress in a tight anchorage. The French boat told us a porky pie. The next morning everybody on that boat got into their dingy and zipped past us to disappear for the day, leaving us in a very delicate situation as regards raising our own anchor. We were unsure whether we would lift theirs and cause an accident, freeing their boat to float around and bump into more considerate boats around them. So we hung on waiting for them well into the afternoon when we wanted to leave after lunch. All part of the experience of life at anchor!
We went ashore with Chris and David and discovered the outpost atmosphere of Porto di Levante. Chris told me that it reminded him of the Galapagos with a wild west meets Weymouth sort of vibe, full of tourist souvenir shops selling nick nacks made out of lava bombs. It is not a place to expect rapid service or a great bottle of wine for less than 25 Euros, but we enjoyed it, and there was a supermarket for stocking up on that perennial provisioning challenge for anglo saxon live aboard sailors; fresh milk.
When visiting Vulcano there is one must- do activity. Make a hike to the summit to see the crater. This hike can be done in three hours; it takes one hour to reach the summit, there is a walk around the crater which takes another hour and then one hour to go back down. I spent two hours at the summit enjoying the alien landscape and the fabulous view over the rest of the Aeolian. Simon had to make a conference call that morning, so I filmed the whole trek, unable to leave my video camera in my pocket for more than a couple of minutes at a time, as the whole hike was so stunning.
Two pieces of advice; be careful when approaching the 200 metres sign not to continue straight on up a ravine but to turn left and look for a path. Although there are footprints which show that people have climbed this ravine, it gets extremely difficult as it is comprised entirely of volcanic dust and gravel which becomes more and more challenging to get a foothold in as the climb gets steeper and steeper. Scrabbling up these final 200 metres on my hands and knees gave me a real cardiac work out and was at times like one of those dreams where you try to run and find your feet are stuck in treacle. It wasn’t dignified but worth it for the unforgettable surprise of the view as I suddenly heaved myself onto the path at the summit: the whole rim of the crater on the east face smokes and fizzes with yellow sulphur fumes. It was a totally alien landscape with a mix of panoramic sea views and walks on a mars like rocky, red terrain. I had my picnic breakfast sitting on the crater’s edge feeling a real sense of achievement (alright, feeling quite smug). My second piece of advice is not to attempt to walk over the fuming sulphur craters in sandals. They are bloomin’ hot! I burnt my left foot but was lucky to get away with just a light burn which wasn’t too painful.
The second thing to do on Vulcano is to take a sulphur mud bath. It costs only 3 Euros (and 1 Euro for a shower) and is supposed to have properties which are good for the skin. The main entertainment consists of watching people paint themselves all over in the mud which bakes white in the sun and then pose for selfies. The more dark skinned you are the better the selfie will be. The sulphur bath waters are over 30 degrees and because of my burnt foot I didn’t want to wallow in them for long. My skin smelled of Vulcano for a couple of days; a slightly acrid sulphur smell. But as the visit had been so amazing, this brought back nice memories and I found myself sniffing my arm all next day with satisfaction. Simon didn’t share the pleasure!
Chris had left before us (as he always does) and we eventually got the courage to raise the anchor and breathed a sigh of relief once we had managed to untangle ourselves from all our bobbing neighbours without incident. We were treated to the most gorgeous trip to Panarea with a fabulous sunset and cumulus clouds (or fluffy clouds in layman’s speak). So much beauty in one day without being on drugs! We put on the Buena Vista Social Club soundtrack and I enjoyed the Cuban music in the Sicilian sunset. One of the advantages of cruising in company is that your companion (especially if they have a penchant for upping anchor early) can find good anchorages ahead of you and then call you over to join them. Chris had checked out the anchorage on the east coast of Isola Panarea and pronounced it “a bloody nightmare” (it was extremely crowded) opting instead to overnight at a day anchorage on the east of Isola Bassiluzo, basically a big rock to the north of Panarea.
It was an absolutely stunning if slightly scary anchorage, as we found ourselves swinging within metres of the sheer rock face anchored in 18 metres but not daring to put out more than 40 metres of chain. Not an anchorage that features in the Rod Heikel pilot or on any chart plotter, or even on the excellent French app “Navily”. “You will have to be more adventurous if you’re hanging out with me” said Chris. Hmmm… There are old sailors and there are bold sailors but … etc. In any case, we were still in the honeymoon weather period with no wind predicted for a couple of days. This remains the most breath-taking anchorage I have stayed at to date, and a definite contrast to the crowded anchorage at Porto di Levante. We had it completely to ourselves and watched the moon come up over the brooding silence of Bassiluzo while listening to Pink Floyd and digesting pasta (thanks to David, Chris’ star crew) and could hear the gentle lapping of water around the rocks while Stromboli in the distance occasionally treated us to a red glow.
The snorkelling in the morning was also the best I have ever made to date. The crystal clear water showed us that our Rocna had dug well into sand and the underwater landscape was stunning, like a submarine botanical garden. However, Simon got his first jelly fish sting and that put a stop to our snorkelling in paradise! Chris lent us some vinegar as we only had balsamic and neither of us fancied trying his advice to “get Rachel to pee on it then pour boiling water over it”. Boiling water?
We motored over to Isola Stromboli in calm conditions. This volcanic island does not bottle up pressure and then release it occasionally with violent eruptions like Etna, but constantly lets off steam and lava and so makes mini eruptions all year round. Perfect for volcanic tourism! These eruptions are visible only on the unpopulated north coast and usually only by night. Nevertheless driving around the north coast in the day light was an awesome experience as we could hear the volcano booming. We switched off the engine and I swam around the boat in the shadow of Stromboli trailing a Go-Pro which, incredibly after three months we had still to get around to using!
Stromboli turned out to be the jewel in the Aeolian crown.
We anchored to the west of Stromboli at San Bartolomeo facing San Bartolo, a charming little town apparently entirely dedicated to hosting tourists and organising tours to the top of Stromboli. The town nestled at the foot of the volcano had quaint white buildings a volcanic black beach and again, a definite outpost feel. I had the impression I was in South America with the lush green vegetation of the slopes of Stromboli stretching out above. A peach granita with whipped cream on the terrace restaurant opposite the church is a mere 3Euros 50 and well worth the climb to the hill top town square.
Afer a chill out day in the bay, we decided to make the night trek around the corner, not quite knowing whether we would see anything much. Chris and David had left for Palma (although it turned out to be Sardinia) the night before, and Chris had said that “Stromboli is snoozing” and hadn’t hung around to see anything at night. We were expecting a flotilla of bobbing lights as the anchorage at San Bartolomeo was extensive and hosted at least a hundred boats. However, on a Sunday night we had the northern face of Stromboli practically to ourselves with only three or four other boats in the vicinity. Stromboli didn’t disappoint. At first we cooed with excitement to see the first orange fizzle which is permanently visible after a certain point north. This excitement quickly ramped up when we saw over the course of our night cruise a dozen or so large eruptions, the lava visibly oozing down the mountainside and cooling. We were spoiled for natural wonders with a spectacular electric storm behind the volcano, periodically vying with Stromboli for our attention.
Never having seen volcanic eruptions in real life but having seen them on television, the mix of the familiar and the completely uncanny is a strange sensation. The eruptions blew hot cinders high into the night sky and cascaded back down like a mix between a solar flare and a Roman candle. The sight is absolutely hypnotic. After an hour and a half I still couldn’t tear my eyes away from the crater’s edge in case another plume of fire emerged. Just as we were heading back we were treated to a grand finale with two simultaneous fiery cascades blowing up into the sky. Friggin’ awesome as the Americans would say. We agreed that although it would be hard to give a top three favourite moments of the trip so far, this would definitely be one of them.
After two nights anchored up in the spacious and well sheltered if somewhat rocky and rolly anchorage at Stromboli, we decided to make our way to Lipari, the largest of the islands. “There should be some wind” announced Simon happily, “we might be able to get a sail down to Lipari”. The skies clouded over and lightning was again visible in the middle distance. Up until now, lightning had been a distant light show which I had enjoyed in the same way I enjoy fireworks. That was about to change. The wind did indeed come up as we left our safe anchorage and at first we fiddled around trying to get the boat to sail. However, the wind was variable and kept dying away only to come up again, switching direction and sometimes veering wildly. “Those Aeolian contrary winds” said Simon. Our admittedly inaccurate wind instruments were reading over 20 knots of wind. Surely we should be able to get a stonking good sail out of that! We got full sail up with genoa and main out. The wind promptly died and we discussed rolling in the genoa and motor sailing. Then the wind started to come up again. Happy days! Let’s leave full sail out! Then it came up a little bit more. Not so happy days. We had left the front facing hatches and bow cabin hatch open and were suddenly taking waves. Water was pouring into the boat and drenched the bow cabin. The wind came up a notch more. The boat was over canvassed and smashing its contents about. The television which was laid down on the seat came crashing onto the floor and broke its stand.
Then from one second to the next and without any warning a full blown storm was upon us and we went from being over canvassed to managing storm conditions. It all happened in the blink of an eye. The wind howled up to 40 knots, the boat promptly gibed and we were suddenly heeled right over with full sail up and without life jackets experiencing our first taste of proper heavy weather sailing. Driving rain reduced the visibility to practically nothing. I remember looking at the sea state behind us which, although we didn’t have big waves, had nonetheless been whipped up to the point that it was white and thinking “that reminds me of pictures I’ve seen in books to describe storm states”. The genoa sheet was whipping around wildly and hit me on the neck as I tried to lean out to winch it in (luckily not painfully). Simon did a sterling job at the helm and we both kept our calm and managed to get the sails in. This is the beauty of being able to control the genoa and main from the cockpit. I certainly would not have liked to get out of the safety of the cockpit at that point! Happily our mainsail furled in beautifully despite the massive pressures on it and we managed to get the genoa in without major incident. Then under engine with what Jon called “a handkerchief” of mainsail out for added stability, it was just a case of riding the storm out under practically bare poles, hoping that none of the lightning strikes would have our name on them! We had already put tablets and phones into the oven as a precaution so that we would have a backup for navigation if the worst came to the worst.
The myth of Aeolius is this. Ulysses was given a bag of winds by the God of wind, Aeolius, with instructions not to open it. As he was sailing through the Aeolian Islands however, his crew became curious and couldn’t resist the temptation to open the bag. Out came the contrary winds which have bedevilled sailors in this area ever since. The storms which form over the islands are major players in causing these contrary and unpredictable local winds, I am sure. Once our storm had passed we had one more misfortune. We were in flat calm and motoring without so much as a force 2 breeze when our auto pilot started to fail, coming up with the stark message “Stop drive” and failing to hold a course. I was reminded of what our instructor on our RYA Safety at Sea course had told us; that it is often after a storm that conditions are the worst with the boat in a pitiful state and things “banging around and breaking”. Maybe it was just a coincidence but it was galling that such a break down should happen in flat calm conditions. Then just to finish the experience, we had one of our best ever sails for the last hour and a half into Lipari; champagne sailing, 7.5 knots on a beautifully balanced beam reach. We didn’t want it to end.
So what did we learn from this eventful storm sail? Firstly not to be lulled into a false sense of security by days of calm weather and gentle breezes. The Mediterranean is not to be underestimated. The many storms that can form after a period of hot humid weather can and do wreak havoc. Nothing in our ten years of sailing in the UK and the North of France had prepared us for such conditions. My meteorology lessons which were so useful for recognising the slowly advancing depressions which barrel across the Atlantic and sweep across British waters were no use for this erratic storm which was unannounced on any weather app and which appeared to vanish only to reappear in an instant and unleash its fury on the boat. Secondly, when the winds are variable and suddenly die, this can be a sign of an approaching storm. The visible signs in the sky were nil. The skies were cloudy above and gave no clues as to the approach of the storm throughout our passage from no wind to what was briefly a force 9 wind. Thirdly we learned to be prepared for heavy weather if there are any storms at all on the horizon; to close all hatches, stow everything in readiness for massive winds and to lay out heavy weather ocean going jackets and life jackets for easy access even if leaving an anchorage in mill pond conditions. We both stayed calm and worked well as a team so the incident had a happy ending, but once in our anchorage in Lipari with a broken down auto pilot and no outboard for our dingy, we did feel a little the worse for wear.
We relaxed at anchor and watched the Lipari quay side which looked enticing, picturesque with pretty church spires on the quayside framed against the mountain slopes behind it. I had gone from Scotland to South America to Switzerland in my imaginative world tour. There was even a live concert of world music for us in the evening which we could hear from the cockpit.
Lipari town is the capital of the Aeolian islands and is absolutely charming and brim-full of history. A trip to shore the next day revealed a town with labyrinths of small alley ways often lovingly decorated with pot plants of all kinds which offer a green and cool oasis of relief from the scorching August sun. Our Rod Heikel Italian waters pilot had recommended the museum which is also the town castle and we were not disappointed. We learned that the island was part of a successful trading route in pre-historic times when obsidian, the naturally occurring black glass found in Lipari was much sought after to fashion weapons and cutting blades in pre iron-age economies. Alum was also a chief export, used as an abrasive.
In the grounds of the ancient Greek town centre which became an Arab fortress then a Norman abbaye in front of one of the many amazing baroque churches, there are excavated foundations of pre historic settlements. Layers of history certainly run deep here! The complex of museums runs throughout the hill top site and one of the most striking displays are the many amphorae excavated from the sites of ancient ship wrecks. We were tickled to see an early anchor; a simple rock with two pairs of horns as hooks. Simple, but effective.
Once back on the boat, we decided to high tail it to Palermo, having secured a place in one of the marinas along with a promise to send a technician to have a look at our auto pilot. Storms were closing in and we decided that the sooner we could get our auto pilot repaired and be tucked into a marina safe and sound, the better. So we left the Aeolian Islands hand helming at night with every expectation of riding out storms, our tablets and phones back in the oven again as the lightning flashed into the sea all around us. To end on a happy note, our radar worked beautifully to show us the storms (there were more than one) as evil, pink blobs that were encroaching upon us but which we just managed to avoid thanks to the radar’s help. At one point a lightning bolt seemed to come down just in front of the boat and temporarily wrecked my night vision, the wind whipped at the back of my legs and I gritted my teeth at the helm with full wet weather gear and clipped on, in preparation for the storm to descend upon us as it nipped at our heels. We were relieved to out run the storms and between us hand helmed with swell on the beam, which was challenging enough, all through the night only to be rewarded the next morning with our first dolphin sightings since sailing in early June around the Ionian with Rob and Sally. The winking lights of the Aeolian Islands receded into the distance as the angry storms faded into the background and we were on to the next chapter of our navigation.