Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Wish you were in Gaeta

No-one likes breaking down, but if it happens, you really can't complain if it happens in a place like Gaeta. That's how we keep trying to frame this little inconvenience, the one that's giving us a headache about making our date in Athens with Pops. You can stress all you like about when, where, why and how much, but let's get a grip here. Who wouldn't appreciate a few days lolling about in an Italian coastal town prized by Romans, ancient and modern, for its lovely climate and easy living?

There are lots of other places I wouldn't want to be right now - in the far east of Turkey, for example, where Syria would seem much too close. But yesterday I thought how glad I was not to be in an Australian newsroom. The end of the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age newspapers as most of us know them has probably been obvious for some weeks to insiders. There was that crazy proposal to shift some facets of editorial work to New Zealand - a bad omen. Still, I was shocked to read that Fairfax is effectively done with publishing newspapers. I'm sorry about the SMH, not just for friends whose careers are more than likely over, but also because right through my life I've simultaneously digested breakfast and the contents of a broadsheet paper. Like most families, we spread the morning paper (remember, there used to be afternoon papers) over the kitchen table, smearing it with buttery toast and tea/coffee stains, swapping sections as we finished with them. An iPad almost takes the place of a newspaper  - everyone gets to have a go - but it's so much more difficult to separate the pages.

Talking of anachronisms, in Gaeta there's an open air marionette show which takes place every evening from about 7 pm which is when the sun begins to lose its oomph. The theatre is set up on a wide section of the promenade which follows the water around to the old town. About half an hour before the curtains open, parents and kids and grandparents take their seats. There's a man selling real fairy floss from a barrel. The kids I've watched seem just as excited about the puppets as I might have been at their age, pre-TV, pre-computer games, pre-just about everything, actually. Something quite lovely about this cultural relic.

Gaeta has a very satisfying number of cultural relics. The Christian ones are the most prominent, because this, after all, is Italy. The town is full of churches and cathedrals and Monster Marys on rooftops. The most beautiful churchy building is this bell tower (below), built in the 13th century and resting on a base of recycled Roman blocks and statuary.

I walked for three hours yesterday afternoon, releasing some of my pent-up frustration at the slow progress being made with fixing the engine (latest word is the fuel pump failure is the result of dirty fuel....neither Alex nor I are entirely convinced by this as a cause, but let me not digress). Monte Orlando is a wilderness park which separates old from new Gaeta on one side, and looks out to the sea on the other. There are stony tracks which zigzag across the mountain, and no-one much to share them with. On the top of Monte Orlando, there's a massive round stone mausoleum. It was built by and for a Roman general called Lucio Munazio Planco, apparently a buddy of Julius Caesar's and Mark Anthony's, until the latter fell out with him over Cleopatra. The entrance was locked, so I photographed "him" through the wire - looks like just another armless Roman soldier, but I'd sweated uphill to find him, so here is Gen. Planco, founder of the colony of Gaul, supposedly.

When I came down from my midsummer dream on the Monte Orlando, I got a much better view of the 6th/7th century castle which sits on the promontory than you get from the town itself. It's good, isn't it? Just like the toy ones.

The days are long, and for many hours we are on the boat, waiting for crumbs of news from the workshop. We wish we spoke Italian. Just now we've learned that the new parts for the fuel pump will arrive tomorrow afternoon, and the mechanics will come to the boat on Friday morning to fit them. It's looking like a mad dash to Athens, weather permitting. Shades of Port Napoleon, except that Gaeta is on our doorstep. We should be eating it up.

PS Dave and Melinda sensibly decided on Sunday to go to Sorrento, and last spoken with, are doing the Amalfi thing.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Light and variable

If our engine hadn't failed, we wouldn't have hung about on Ponza Island for another two days, and that would have been our loss.

Ponza is glorious in June, like a delicate flower just coming into bloom - its air is soft, the sea  fresh and soothing and, at the beginning of the season, the locals are relaxed.  Apparently this exquisite flower wilts quickly though. In July and August, it has the life all but crushed out of it by huge crowds of holidaymakers. That's the cost of doing business.

We hit the sweet spot of the summer solstice. That day was riotous, with fireworks continuing through until midnight. Shortly after lunch, a flotilla of fishing and pleasure boats, strung with bunting, streamed out of the small harbour in a tight cluster, honking their horns like delirious peak hour commuters, as a Vesuvius of fireworks and coloured smoke exploded over the village.

Alex's desperate foray into Ponza on the day of the festival to get help was surprisingly fruitful. He turned up not just an ordinary village mechanic, but Gianlucca, a chief engineer on big ships who was  back home for a few weeks, holidaying with his wife and baby. After an hour of troubleshooting, he spoke the dreaded words, electronic problem. Nine out of ten emergency mechanics would have thrown in the towel at that point, but not Gianlucca. He stayed another two hours, and tracked down our engine failure to a burned out fuse in the "board".  He told Alex, "Next time you get a boat, you get a normal engine." But Gianlucca, like Alex, knows that there's no going back from electronics in engines, whether they be in cars, ships or sailing boats. The world is in love with electronics. Supposedly they make engines more reliable, but when they fail, there's nothing much the home handyman can do. It's off to the workshop.

Gianlucca followed through by putting Alex in touch with Volvo engine technicians at the Base Nautica Flavio Gioia marina at Gaeta on the mainland (the Volvo round-the-world race fleet made a stop here in May). It was agreed that we would sail to Gaeta the next day.

That evening, for light relief,  he and I took a little dinghy ride, first to the "baths" carved out of the cliff face for Roman holidaymakers two thousand odd years ago, and then into the town for an aperitif and pizza. We let our hair down. It's been pinned up quite tightly these past few weeks.

A fresh north-westerly wind blew into the anchorage at about 1.30 am, waking us up. Alex and Dave paced. Some time during the evening, a dive boat had parked directly in front of us, restricting the distance we had to pull up the anchor under sail (we had anchored Enki out deeper that afternoon, using the dinghy as a tug). Up at first light, we waited a while, but when the wind started to build, and the dive boat showed no sign of life, Alex made his move, and he did it brilliantly.

It's 35 nautical miles from Ponza to Gaeta. We'd calculated a five to six hour trip, given the forecast for freshening winds. But two hours after we got underway, the wind started to drop out. Time to start the engine....ah, no. No engine. Enki, to her credit, never stopped going forward, even at a crawl of 1.4 knots.  For a big heavy boat, she moves so well in light winds. Very light, and variable winds. For an hour or so we were almost becalmed. The sun was ferocious. Alex never stopped thinking. He worked the sails harder than he's probably had to since he stopped racing J24s. The gennaker came out for the first time, a kind of gennaker called code zero, which is shorthand for "a dream to hoist and furl and gybe". We gybed a few times to give way to trawlers crossing our path. Towards the end of the day, Alex poled out the genoa as well as carrying the gennaker.

I stayed too long on the helm, and melted down, oppressed by the heat and the captain's high expectations which I could not meet.  It happens.

We were pushed into a berth by a work boat from the Base Nautica Flavio Gioia, and here we remain until....well, who knows. On Monday the Volvo technical team will come aboard with their diagnostic instruments, and then we'll know what part we need, and how long it will take to arrive in Gaeta. It feels much too soon to be back in a marina, waiting for work to be done. Much too soon. But these are teething problems, we tell ourselves. Enki is a sound boat.  She will settle down. We will settle down.

Meanwhile, Pops writes to us from Turkey. Motor fixed? She flies to Athens on July 5 to meet us...and she leaves us on July 11. We are desperate to see her. I said we didn't make plans, but Pops is not a plan. She's a need. My need. I'll try not to dwell on that. Monday, Monday...

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

The Ponza conundrum

We've been up since 5 am,  but the only movement so far has been in the sky. Three little grey clouds, puffs of cannon smoke, float lazily over the pastel-coloured town behind our anchorage. The island of Ponza is celebrating the summer solstice. Dawn arrived with a short sprays of fireworks. The civic partying continues sporadically through morning espresso time. What will lunch bring?

Sadly, nothing is firing on Enki. I'm talking about the engine. For five and half straight hours, Alex and Dave have been working their way through all the possible reasons why fuel is not getting through to the injection pumps. "One of the books says you should try to run it 30 seconds to get fuel through," says Dave. "Well, I guess if we have to change an impeller...." And so it goes on.

Enki has a big engine, a 110 hp Volvo. It was serviced in Port Napoleon. Since then, because there's been so little wind these past five or six days, it's propelled us over more miles than we care to count (I'm guessing about 500). We motored almost all the way from Antibes to Corsica, then across the Bonifacio Strait to  La Maddalena in the north-east of Sardinia, and then, to our chagrin, from there to here.

We pulled up yesterday afternoon around the corner from tiny Ponza harbour, about 60 miles off the Naples coast. The water is so clear I could see the anchor as it settled on sand and weed 8 meters below the hull. By late evening, the anchorage was packed closely with all kinds of boats, from the cheeky charterers to the imperious princes of the cruising world.  We swam, watched the comings and goings towards the restaurant on the beach, and went to bed before dark because we planned to set sail today very early, to make Salerno, south of Naples by evening. But unless our luck changes, we're staying in Ponza for the festival of San Silverio. Silver linings to little grey clouds...

Alex is a fiendish trouble-shooter. I have huge faith in his dogged intelligence and common sense. He doesn't panic. He approaches problems methodically, unemotionally. We've had a few technical problems on Enki thus far which he's managed to diagnose and resolve. Yesterday, the autopilot instrument on the wheel died. The problem wasn't obvious. Its symptom was a persistent high-pitched whine when we turned the chart plotters on. He isolated the rogue instrument failure by threading a length of spare Sea Talk cable (he's been carrying it around since Andiamo days "just in case") up the pedestal.

You can't expect to start sailing a new boat without glitches, which is why we have tried not to make too many firm plans this season. We've prepared Enki the best we can, and Hallberg Rassy comes with a fine reputation for seaworthiness and reliability, but still stuff happens which is why Alex has yet to really put his feet up and relax. So far, he's out-manoeuvred Enki's little surprises, but this current problem is seriously vexing him. Initially he and Dave diagnosed air in the fuel delivery system because it was obvious - last night Alex again transferred fuel from the spare tank into the main tank. The previous time he'd transferred fuel, in Porto Vecchio, the engine didn't start either.  "It's either fuel or air," he and Dave agreed. They checked the filters, bled the fuel line, and when all the air was out, and fuel was primed to the engine, we were off.

But today Enki is misbehaving. "We're beyond the simpler causes now," as Alex says, i.e.we're into the fine print of the manuals and self-help diesel engine books.  And now, as I sign off, Alex, Dave and Melinda have taken the dinghy to town to look for an expert Volvo diesel mechanic. Ha.

Ponza is a small summer town on an island famous for its amazing twisted and compressed rock formations rather than marine wizardry. But you never know...Ferries run from Ponza to Naples. We take some comfort in that. We're not in the Marquesas, as Alex says.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

A dash of Corse

The sun going down is a daily affair, I know, and in the future I'll be judicious in my use of sunset photos. But this one is a bit special. It's taken on Enki's first "passage", a term which implies night sailing, as opposed to the more manageable coastal or inter-island day-hop.

In this case, the passage was a short one, an overnighter from Antibes to Porto Vecchio at the bottom of Corsica - but still, a passage is a passage. We ran out of wind very quickly, the weather having settled for a few days under a torpid high pressure system. Enki's engine pushed us along quietly and efficiently on a rolly sea. We were eating pasta in the cockpit when a couple of whales pushed their backs above the surface, not far from the ship. None of us expected to see whales in the Med, nor for that matter flying fish - yet we've seen both.

Cap Corse, the northern tip of Corsica, has a nasty reputation, and sailors are warned to keep well clear of it in all but the most benign weather. But there was nothing to fear on the night we rounded the Cap, except for other ships passing in the night, of which there were many. The swell had subsided by then and the unfamiliar starry sky was still and crisp. When the moon rose shortly before dawn I mistook it for an approaching yacht carrying a pale orange spinnaker.

A gentle breeze pushed us down the east coast of Corsica. Enki sails beautifully in light airs. I'm not an expert in these things, but there were times when the instruments registered an apparent breeze of 6 knots and speed over ground of 6.3 knots, and variations on that theme. I found that exciting.

We anchored in Porto Vecchio harbour, in the south-eastern quarter of Corsica, at about 5 pm. Knowing little or nothing about these coastlines, we are pretty much chained to the cruising guide books written by Rod Heikell, a Kiwi who has poked his nose into just about every cove and marina in the Med, it seems. Still, even with his notes, it's not until you get to a place that you know for sure whether it's going to work or not. Porto Vecchio works wonderfully. It's a shallow harbour, but deeply bitten into the straight-edged eastern seaboard of Corsica. There's a walled village high above the small marina which was first established by the Genoese in the mid 1500s. You can see why they thought the harbour worth defending. These days Porto Vecchio is a holiday town, but it's one with older stones, thicker walls and better views than a lot of Cote d'Azur resorts. The 100th Tour de France starts from Porto Vecchio next year. Good choice.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

A perfect shade of blue

Today we knew we'd arrived on the Cote d'Azur -  arrived, as in "look, that's our yacht anchored over there" (Enki is out of the frame, a bit to the right of those big mothers). Do I look sufficiently nonchalant? I'm not. I'm squeezing the pleasure out of each sunlit minute.

The company that we're keeping in Antibes is not what we're used to, which doesn't mean we couldn't get used to it, at a pinch. 

Actually, we're anchored at Anse de la Salis, around the corner from the town marina where the superyachts are lined up.  From Sunday afternoon until this morning, aside from one very wet foray in the dinghy, we stayed put on Enki, watching the barometer drop and the south-westerly wind gather speed and menace.

The only sailors brave enough to be out  on Sunday and Monday were a bunch of children in their Optimists - I'm fairly sure we must have been watching a training camp for France's finest juniors.

Last night, the bad weather finally moved on and we woke today to the stuff of your dreams - ours too. So, instead of pulling up anchor and heading across to Corsica, as we'd been planning to do, we decided to loiter in Antibes and check out the Picasso museum. It's got the best views in town, including this one of Enki at anchor (she's second from the left). 

Picasso spent only a few months working in Antibes in 1946, at the beginning of his Francoise Gilot period. He worked from a studio on the top floor of the former Grimaldi palace, and on the strength of that brief association, the town has converted the building into a(nother) Picasso museum.

Miro at the Picasso museum

Picasso produced so much that inevitably not everything of his that's hung in awe is going to stop you in your tracks. What did it for me was a wall of chunky glazed plates, a group of sweet and crazy ceramic vesesls and a sublime painting called Joie de Vivre. But nothing in the collection, to my mind, surpasses the austere beauty of the 14th century building with its commanding position, peering down through seven centuries on the loveliness below.

The plan is to leave Antibes tomorrow morning, and sail overnight to either the east coast of Corsica or Elba, off the coast of Italy, depending on what's happening out there. The weather - ah, the weather. I'd like to say we're starting to understand it, but that would be quite untrue. We don't have a clue, yet. Give us time, lots of time.

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Dinner in St Tropez

Alex finally got to play with his new toy yesterday. Here's Enki on her way to St Tropez, her sails reefed, trucking along at about 7 knots, often more, in a fresh south-westerly breeze. Her skipper couldn't sit still. So much to figure out. Everything to enjoy. Like Alex, Melinda has dreamed of sailing in the Med since  - well, since forever. She probably didn't expect to be wearing wet weather gear on her first day under canvas on the wine-dark sea. More like a pair of crisp white shorts and a cheeky little striped top. Ah well, that'll come. Yesterday she, like the rest of us, was ecstatic to be riding the swell.

The day began a little shakily. Alex had made driving into the pontoon stern-to look so easy the previous evening, but driving out frontwards in the morning against a fresh cross-breeze was another matter. Let's just say that ropes got where they shouldn't have got, and there was some concern about the prop. No need, as it turned out, but Alex motored out of Toulon harbour looking grimmer than the the prospect of a fine day's sailing called for.

Enki galloped the 55 miles from Toulon to St Tropez like the proven distance runner she is. She's a big boat, however, and all those extra electric aids (winches, the in-mast furler) are going to make sailing her so much more manageable. More on this later, from the skipper. Enough to say, on her first day out she behaved impeccably.

We'd imagined that Saturday night would be busy in this part of the world, but the Baie des Canoubiers, tucked around the corner from where the big boys tie up in the old port of St Tropez proper, was so empty when we arrived we could have been on the Queensland coast.

Dave dived on the prop (it hadn't folded back in, as it is meant to do), and quite apart from the joy of discovering a chewed-up plastic bag tangled around the mechanism, he splashed around like a puppy on his first Med dip. So many firsts. First splash in the Med for our new Rocna anchor too - it bit strong and hard into the weedy bottom.

It's not too hard, really. We might get used to this. The food on board is not bad either.