Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Above operating temperature

My brain is a temperate climate brain. It can tolerate high temperatures in the middle of the day, but it needs a fresh morning start and a cool down in the evening to stay primed. Neither of those are on offer at the moment, so as of yesterday, after staying the distance with George Eliot in Middlemarch, I'm running with Tom Wolfe. His pre-digested prose doesn't use up as much mental juice as processing George's sophisticated take on her times.

We wake to a below decks temperature of about 30 degrees C. The day is long, and the sun always shines. Its heat begins to build from about 8.30 am and pumps furiously till about 5.30 pm. After then, it eases back a little and if you're onshore, that's when people begin to circulate, heading for the beaches and the bars. No-one thinks of eating until well after 9 pm.  I'm not interested in food much beyond tomato, cucumber and sweet onion salad. That's becoming a bit of a problem for us when we're at anchor, since I'm the cook. The sun's hot shadow trails late into the night and it's not till midnight that exhaustion opens the way for sleep.

Fishing boats return to port early in the morning at Mesolongion

Early evening on the town quay at Galaxidi

The sun sets over the Gulf of Corinth

Alex's mission in Piraeus, where we are docked for a couple of nights, is to get the Magna barbecue in working order - I tell him it's what I need to kickstart my enthusiasm for cooking dinner. We're missing vital fittings, and the gas bottles have to be filled (gas and gaz - now there's a language barrier that needs to be crossed in the Med). He's just come back from scouring the ship chandlers around this seedy old port town. Alex loves to shop, and he's pleased with his tidy haul which includes replacement Lewmar blocks amongst various other treasures. Piraeus, he tells me ominously, is our last "Euro" town before Turkey. After that, where will I buy camomille tea bags?

At Rion, the world's longest cable-stayed bridge spans the "waist" between the Patras and Corinth Gulfs

Light wind sailing
 We've come to Piraeus via the Gulf of Patras and Gulf of Corinth and, of course, the Corinth Canal. I do love to say these names. I'm completely open to being seduced by the ancient world, not that I know anything about anything. We've anchored in Mesolongion, in amongst the salt marshes, and off the beach at Alkonidhes, near an abandoned monstery. We've squeezed into the smallest and narrowest of  harbours at Galaxadi. I've wrangled with port authorities and Alex has wrangled with other people's anchors (a nasty consequence of reversing into the town quay at Galaxidi just a little bit crooked was that our anchor was laid to the right of where it ought to have been, and some one else dropped theirs over the top of our chain....you had to be there, or else be an avid reader of Yachting Monthly, to appreciate the dilemma).

If there is one place where you wouldn't want your engine to fail, it's in the Corinth Canal (we still think like that). But it didn't, and that little shortcut has brought us through into the Aegean Sea. From here, it's only a few short hops to the west coast of Turkey.

We follow a freighter into the Corinth Canal

Motorists wait for the submersible bridge to open after we've entered the canal

Alex steers Enki in a straight line

The Aegean is at the end of the 3.2 mile canal

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Port of entry

Let's forget about what was. Here's what is. Enki in Greece. And if she's at a Greek town quay - this one is behind the breakwater at Zakynthos, one of the northern Ionian islands on the western side of the Greek mainland - her skipper must have completed that tricky manoeuvre known as going in stern-to.

I had no idea that Alex was approaching this "first time" with such apprehension. He is so famously cool, calm and collected that when he gave me instructions about freeing up the windlass so as the anchor could run freely as he reversed into what would inevitably be a tight spot, I assumed it was my performance, as ever, that he was anxious about. Not a bit of it. It turns out he's spent years reading in yachting magazines of how many ways this particular manoeuvre can be fouled up. After three days of being here, and watching other skippers coming in, I can see why he had the jitters.

Call it beginner's luck (I won't ) or a great crew (perhaps), but he did it perfectly the first time. Unfortunately the spot was a little too snug, so we did it again, further down the quay. Because we'd arrived from Italy early in the morning, there was none of the notorious cross-breeze which multiplies the degree of difficulty many times over. This morning, when we're getting ready to leave Zakynthos, there's brisk northerly blowing across the harbour. Alex is still asleep. The news can wait.

Zakynthos isn't much of a town to look at. It was destroyed by an earthquake in 1953, and rebuilt in what is fancifully called the Venetian style. Think concrete slab. This being July, the place is heaving with holidaymakers - mostly families and young adults who tip off buses and onto cruise boats each morning. Here they are, packed tightly for a better roast on the top deck. The waterline is a bit of a worry too.

The plan is to take the short cut through the Corinth canal and into the Aegean sea. It's been blowing dogs off chains there for weeks (that's an Alex saying - looks a bit odd written down), but we wouldn't mind some wind. We motored a lot of the way from Sicily over a dead calm sea. Enough said. Yesterday Alex did an oil change, just an ordinary job - for a change.

I leave you with two images which probably sum up Greece as we know it - without knowing it at all yet. On our first evening strolling along the main street, we met a protest march. Later, eating at a grill house,  Alex asked our waiter what the the marchers wanted. He looked embarrassed. "Oh, nothing. It's government...." He didn't want to talk. He was busy. It's summer and there's money to be made if you have a job. 

And here's the second image.

The man had just scooped his little fish out of the gutter where he'd landed it, and was washing it at a tap provided for visiting yachts to use (for a fee). He was pretty pleased with his catch though it would have left a cat feeling peckish. The point was to be there, on the quay, fishing. He seemed to be saying, this is the life.

Friday, 20 July 2012

Clean fuel, limpid air

After the last post's violent expulsion of four week's worth of foul matter, I offer you melt-your-heart late evening light on the old stone town of Syracuse...as photographed by Alex from Enki's cockpit.

I know it's all been a bit woe-is-me of late, and that those of you who are reading the blog and not doing it tough on a yacht in the Mediterranean may have had a sneaking thought along the lines of "come on, guys - lighten up". Well, it's coming. We've been humbled, and our confidence has been knocked about. But we're still on for the good times. Promise.

We filled our clean, empty tanks at a fuel dock a couple of miles north of Messina and gave the engine a long run down to Syracuse - about 12 hours of motor sailing (not everyone's idea of a good day on the water, but in the circumstances, perfect for us). We're anchored in Syracuse Grand Harbour and, for the first time in many weeks, we're amongst a majority of non-Italian boats.  I imagine they are mostly on their way to or from Greece. A little yacht, no more than 26 feet, with a French flag was gone by early this morning. A Greek super yacht (perhaps five times that size) arrived late last night.

In the ancient Greek world, Syracuse was a seriously powerful city - Archimedes, he of the bathwater (i.e. displacement) theory, lived here. Earthquakes and the plague destroyed many of the classical buildings, and Siracusa (as the Sicilians call it) was rebuilt in the 18th century. Its piazzas and public buildings as well as its dilapidated private houses and narrow streets are beautifully proportioned. The old part of the town is a UNESCO World Heritage site, which means it probably lives on tourism. If so, it's a quiet year.

Alex and I sat in the grand baroque cathedral, the one you see on the skyline of the town, which is built on the foundations and around surviving columns of a temple to Athena, and marvelled at the wealth of religious institutions, ancient and modern, which commissioned the artistry within them both, the Greek temple and the baroque Italian cathedral.

Did the Greeks still believe in their gods as their civilisation entered its end times? Or were their temples empty shells by that time, as these glorious churches are in ours? We believe in science and technology. They are our faith, and we worship every day at our computers and on our mobile phones. As for eternal life, have we stopped wanting it?

We're planning (again) to leave for Greece in the morning.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

The dirty details

WARNING: This is a story which goes on far too long, but which those of you with an interest in the temperaments of marine engines may gather round for. If I could, I'd tuck it away in another part of the  blog, but I haven't worked out how to do that yet. 

Enki has a 110 hp Volvo Penta D3100 engine which, when we bought the boat in July 2011, had close to 3200 hours on the clock and was six years old - i.e. out of guarantee, and over the five-year age limit which our insurer, Pantaneus, puts on engine claims. We didn't go looking for this kind of new generation diesel engine, one dependent on clever electronic gadgetry, but we accepted that if you want a boat as new as Enki that's what you end up with. It's the way the world has gone.

Enki's engine is quieter, more efficient, has lower emissions and has a better power to weight ratio than a traditional diesel engine and we appreciate that when it's running. But there have been times when we've longed for the comparative simplicity of a noisier, smellier, old-school diesel engine, like the Yanmar we had on Kukka. That said, before we left Port Napoleon on June 8,  we had no reason to think we would have problems with Enki's engine.  In fact, we had several reasons to be confident it would do what it's meant to do - give us no trouble at all.

They were 1) that just before we bought her, her previous owner motored from Majorca to meet us at Port Napoleon, a two-day run; 2) that he ran the engine for us at Port Napoleon, and Alex was on board when he motored from the pontoon to the travel lift; 3) that we had a comprehensive survey done before purchase which picked up no engine problems and 4) that the engine was serviced in Port Napoleon by a smart and meticulous mechanic.

Our confidence was misplaced, as it turns out, and because we still don't know for sure why we've had such a run of bad luck, I'm putting as many cards as I can retrieve from this game on the table. If you can make more sense out of this hand than we can, we'd love to know your thoughts.

After we bought her, we left Enki on a hardstand at Port Napoleon over an exceptionally cold winter. Temperatures inside the boat dropped below freezing point, but Enki was properly "winterized" with anti-freeze, and there was no problem starting her engine at any stage at Port Napoleon, both on the hard and when she was put back in the water.

Last November, Alex filled the tanks with fuel bought from a service station at Port Saint Louis, figuring that the fuel already in the tanks was less likely to become contaminated if the tanks were full.  He did not empty out the old fuel, nor did he consider it necessary to clean the tanks. Before winter, he not only put anti-freeze in the engine, but he also anticipated the growth of the dreaded "bug" in the fuel should there be condensation in the tanks. He mixed in a fuel additive called Starbrite BioDiesel, an American product he'd been using for about 10 years on our previous two boats, one with a older Volvo engine, the other with the Yanmar I spoke about. He was aware of no reason why he should not do this. Many people do the same to protect against fungus and bacteria in their fuel.

Enki's fuel tanks exposed

We motored out of Port Napoleon on June 8 and made our way along the Cote d'Azur, motoring more often than sailing. We were thrilled with the engine's performance. On June 14 we left Antibes bound for Corsica, a 32-hour passage during which we motored much more than we would have liked to, but again the engine performed faultlessly. We anchored at Porto Vecchio, in the south-east of Corsica,  for two nights. One the second night, Alex transferred fuel from the secondary fuel tank to the primary fuel tank, and the next morning we had our first experience of the engine failing to start.

Alex and Dave Gunn, a chemical engineer with extensive experience in building and managing power stations, started with the obvious causes - fuel and air. They checked the fuel for water, and found none. The filters, which had been changed in Port Napoleon, were a bit dirty, but not exceptionally so. The fuel, they concluded, was clean. They bled the fuel pump, and air came out. The engine started after vigorous priming of the pump, and we were away - problem solved.

We motored across to Sardinia, and stayed overnight at a marina in La Maddalena so we could clear into Italy. The next morning there was no wind at all, and we motored the entire 26 hours to Ponza island, about 20 nautical miles off the Italian mainland. We planned to stay one night, and then keep moving south. We were heading for Greece to meet Pops in Athens on July 5.

On June 20, at anchor around the corner from the Ponza town harbour, our engine failed to start. This time there was no air in the fuel pump. When Alex and Dave had exhausted all possible options, they took the dinghy into Ponza to find mechanical help. They found Gian Luca, a chief engineer on big ships, who was home for a holiday. He came to the boat the next morning, spent three hours in the engine bay, and concluded that we had an electronic problem. He telephoned Volvo Penta Italy on our behalf, and they directed us to sail to Base Nautica Gioia Flavia at Gaeta where there was a Volvo Penta service centre. The mechanics there had the diagnostic computer which all authorised Volvo agents are supplied with. With new-generation diesels, an electronic problem needs an electronic diagnosis.

We sailed to Gaeta on Friday and waited over the weekend for the Base Nautica mechanics to arrive with their computer on Monday. It's worth noting at this point that marinas in Italy are notoriously expensive. Marina charges are graded from 1 - 6 in the Mediterranean pilots written by Rod Heikell.  Gaeta is charge band 6. The Base Nautica mechanics came to the boat without a computer. They had failed to let the marina administration know that it was broken. There was much embarrassment, and later that day two other mechanics, Antonio and Claudio, were sub-contracted by Base Nautica to do the job. We were told that they were authorised Volvo mechanics, and believed they must have been because they brought with them a Volvo computer. However, because they were sub-contracted by Base Nautica, and spoke no English, we never found out the name of their business, nor could we contact them directly.

We spent a week in Gaeta. At first the mechanics told us we might need a new fuel pump, which could be couriered overnight from Rome. But then it appeared we didn't need a new pump. The pump was fine. All we needed was a new fuel delivery sensor.  On Wednesday, with minimal explanation - we had no common language - Claudio took away the fuel injectors and later that day we were told we needed new fuel injector nozzles because the old ones were blocked. There was no suggestion they could be cleaned. We accepted a quote for the work - 2200 euros. That included new pressure sensors and an overhaul of the fuel pump.  On Friday morning, Claudio fitted the new injectors, and started the engine with vigorous priming.

We left Gaeta mid-afternoon that Friday, June 29, having filled up at Base Nautica's fuel dock. We motored out of the harbour, and then cut the engine, and sailed south in a fresh breeze. When the wind died at sunset we turned on the engine, and motored through the night and all the next day, dropping anchor at Vulcano Island, in the Aelion group off the north coast of Sicily. Alex transferred fuel that night from the secondary tank to the main tank. Our plan was to make an early start to catch the south-going tide through the Strait of Messina.

The engine failed to start the next morning, a Sunday (of course). Again, Dave and Alex went through the usual trouble-shooting routine - fuel, air, filters. We suspected the fuel transfer - was it a coincidence that the engine had failed after each fuel transfer? But the fuel was free of water, and looked clean, and the filters were recently changed.

By late Sunday afternoon, having first tried to get a response from Gaeta, we were talking to Volvo Penta's crisis centre in Belgium, and we knew there was a Volvo Penta mechanic on the next island, Lipari, and that we would be towed there the next morning. By late Monday morning, July 2, we were in Lipari with another mechanic, Massimo Peluso, on board with his Volvo diagnostic program. He also brought with him his girlfriend Claudia, who spoke a little English - a little is much better than none in these circumstances. Massimo got the engine started with vigorous priming. He told us that the fuel injector nozzles we'd had replaced in Gaeta looked fine to him. He said the problem was mechanical, not electronic. He'd freed up a valve but had essentially done nothing but bring fuel up to the injectors by priming the pump and suggested that we use higher rpm from time to time during long periods of motoring.

Massimo came back the next morning, and the engine started immediately. By this stage however we were very twitchy about the engine's reliability, and I had contacted Pops and organised for her to fly to Palermo, not Athens. Our idea was that we would spend five days with her cruising around the Aeolian islands where we'd be able to contact Massimo if we had any further problems. But first we had to go to Milazzo, on the north coast of Sicily, to meet Pops.

On Wednesday, July 3 we motored down the west coast of Vulcano Island, anchored for a few hours of swimming, and then sailed towards Milazzo, coming into the Marina del Nettuno by early evening under motor. A short hop, in other words.

The next morning, Alex tried, and failed to start the engine. He called Massimo, spoke to Claudia and  within five minutes a mechanic called Roberto appeared on our boat. We didn't really know who Roberto was, but he said he would be back that afternoon with a diagnostic computer. When the Volvo Penta crisis centre called us about midday to check if everything was all right with the engine, we were able to tell him 1) no, it was not and 2) that a mechanic from Milnautica was on the boat. Thomas (the Volvo Penta liaison man) checked his data base and confirmed that Milnautica was one of their agents.

Roberto came back to us the next morning, Friday July 6,  with his computer, and by lunch-time (very important in Italy) he had told us we needed a new fuel pump but that it would not be in Milazzo until the following Wednesday.  (Marina del Nettuno in Milazzo is a charge band 6 marina, by the way). No point in arguing with Sicilians, or talking about overnight delivery. That doesn't wash. The new fuel pump arrived on Thursday morning which meant that Pops holidayed on the Milazzo marina with us. She left the day the fuel pump arrived to begin her long journey back to Sydney.

With the new fuel pump installed, the engine started, but we were even more nervous than ever so we decided to stay a couple more days in the marina and start the engine in variety of conditions over that time. Early on Saturday morning, July 14, we felt confident enough to leave for Greece with little wind predicted.

About two hours into the trip, the engine lost power, and the revs dropped to 1000 rpm with the throttle still in the same position. Alex engaged neutral and tried to increase the revs, but was still unable to go beyond 1000 rpm. He shut down the engine after checking for warning lights and that the water pump was working ok. He restarted the engine and for a short while couldn't get anything more than 1000 rpm. Then he opened the throttle which produced some rough running which he thought may have been something caught around the prop. The engine still wasn't performing so he shut it down again, and we raised the sails and headed for shore as we considered what to do next. Alex started the engine again, and a few minutes later, in neutral, after some initial rough running, the engine was able to rev out and engage in gear. We motored in reverse at low rpm  in the hope that if something had caught around the prop that might help to unwind it. Then he put the engine in forward and it got going. A few minutes later it was as if nothing had happened. We dropped the sails and motored on towards the Strait, telling ourselves that we'd check the prop when we got to Greece. If there had been something caught on it, it seemed to be gone now.

About two hours later, when we were through the narrowest part of the strait but still motoring because the wind, while fresh, was dead up our stern, the engine stopped. It couldn't be restarted at all.

We sailed back to Messina, against the wind and tide, and floated onto the pontoon at Marina del Nettuno (connected to the Milazzo marina). Roberto was there to meet us. His first diagnosis that afternoon was that the new fuel pump was broken, but by the time he left us he had shifted his attention to the fuel tanks. He said he'd be back on Monday morning with the head of Volvo for this part of Sicily, who had more diagnostic instruments.

On Monday, Roberto came alone to the boat - and we never found out why the head of Volvo couldn't or wouldn't come with him. He tested the pressure in the fuel pump, and said it was fine.  Not broken after all. He took off the injector nozzles, and went with Alex to a Bosch testing centre on the outskirts of Milazzo where the nozzles were subjected to extreme high pressure testing. They were blocked with a black sticky mess. Alex has written to Volvo today: "I am at a loss to know how the fuel can be dirty (?) after passing through 10 micron Racor filters and the Volvo filter on the engine."

Roberto came to the conclusion then that the only possible cause for our engine troubles was dirty fuel. The fuel looked clean, but it could not be clean. Something mysterious was dissolved in the fuel. It was passing through the filters, but was precipitated under high pressure and blocking the high pressure injector nozzles. Hence the engine wouldn't start. He suggested we empty the fuel tanks, clean them and fill up with clean fuel. We would need a new set of injector nozzles (about 1200 euros plus tax) - as in Gaeta, there was no suggestion that the nozzles could be cleaned though we know that is possible in other places.

If the fuel is dirty, what is contaminating it? Danilo, one of the marina's directors, and a good English speaker, made some phone calls about fuel analysis, but the closest such lab, he found out, is in Catania and the results would not come back within a week, he told us. With our backs to the wall, we made a decision not to wait for the results, and to accept a shockingly high quote (4400 euros) from Milnautica for emptying and cleaning the fuel tanks - the quote also included Roberto's labour on the fuel pump, and the new injector nozzles.

Grime wiped out of the tank with a rag and solvent

Roberto strips dirt off the pipework with solvent and a paintbrush

The story ends here for the moment. We don't know if we have dirty fuel, but what we saw in the bottom of the tank, and smeared all over the pipework appalled us. It was black and sticky, and nothing like any sludge Alex has ever seen before, like a monster which has lurked in the bottom of the tank for many many miles, then chosen to lunge. Of course, engines are mechanical and logical, and there has to be an explanation other than the monster one, but we're struggling.

We have a couple of theories. The first turns on the possibility of Christophe having collected something nasty in the tanks on his travels, possibly up a Brazilian river, which had dissolved in the fuel and thus did not give him any problems because we're fairly certain he didn't use fuel additive. It may have been precipitated by the fuel additive Alex put in. The second says we bought dirty fuel in Port Saint Louis. There are big holes in both scenarios. We've had a lot of miles of good motoring in between breakdowns. We will leave fuel and sludge specimes in Messina with Danilo who will send them to Catania and email us the results.
Fingers scooped up sludge for the specimen bottle
We know that these kinds of "nightmares" happen - you read about them in yachting magazines. We've tried to deal with the engine problem sanely, but it creates enormous stress. Forget Joshua Slocum and the vanity of seamanship. Having an engine is a modern safety requirement in a boat this size. If we have a complaint about this four week saga, it is that we think the mechanics in Gaeta, those sub-contracted by the marina, were sloppy in their diagnosis. They changed our fuel injector nozzles, but didn't investigate why the nozzles were blocked. It's cost us a lot of time and money to get to the dirty fuel diagnosis, and also pain of a familiar sort. Alex put his back out at Vulcano Island, priming the fuel pump early in the morning before he'd limbered up, and he's been a long time getting mobile again.

Cross fingers and toes, we'll have no more problems from now on. We're planning (again) to re-fuel tomorrow further up the strait, then to turn south again, and find our way across to Greece and then Turkey. Neither of us are particularly optimistic - we're contaminated by a lingering anxiety that this will go on and on. We dearly hope not. We have no more appetite for Italian mechanics, though we have been treated kindly, very kindly by the marina here at Messina.

You know as much as we do now, if you've stayed the distance.

Housekeeping matters

Thick, sticky black muck on the floor of our fuel tanks, and coating the sides and pipework. 

More dirty details as they filter through our clogged brains. 

Monday, 16 July 2012

The stickiness of Sicily

We motored out of Milazzo at 6 am on Saturday morning. Sounds normal, bordering on dull, doesn't it? Not for us.

At the time I took this picture, we were on our way to Greece. Jubilantly so. The light was beautiful and Milazzo's vicious heat was still a couple of hours away.

We were on our way to Greece for another five and a half hours. We'd got far enough down the Strait of Messina, past the whirlpools of antique fame, that we were beginning to relax - Mt Etna was smoking like a Romantic watercolour on our right, Reggio di Calabria was slipping behind us on our left  - when the engine stopped. Abruptly, and definitively. The Strait of Messina, one of Europe's great seafaring thoroughfares, is not such a great place to lose your engine.

(At another time, when all this is over, I'll write a fuller account of what's happened to our Volvo Penta D3100 engine over the past month, and post it on our Boat page. A few of you may want to know the dirty details.)

We tacked back up the strait, against a head wind and the on-coming current, and brought Enki into  Messina's deep sickle-shaped harbour, so prized by the ancients and we moderns as a strategic haven. It seems perverse to say it, but this was a great afternoon's sailing. How much more satisfying to pit your skills against the elements than against mechanical failure. And here we are again, tied to the outside of a marina pontoon, rising and falling on the surge of the 500 shipping movements which we're told Messina harbour has a day.

Roberto from Milnautica Milazzo has been back on board with his toolkit.  It turns out that he lives in Messina. Yesterday he took out the injectors and Alex went with him to a testing centre. The new injectors are blocked. That's why the engine stopped. By the end of the morning, Roberto's latest theory was that we have dirt in the fuel. What sort of dirt can't be known unless the fuel is analysed. The closest laboratory is in Catania, further south, and analysis takes a week. Roberto advised that we need new injectors, and we need to empty our fuel tanks and clean them. Then of course we need to buy new fuel.

While we waited yesterday for events to unfold, Roberto showed us photos of his family on his wife's Facebook page. At some point, the penny dropped - we could use the computer to speak to each other too. Roberto types in Italian and Google translates it into English, and vice versa.

Today involves us spending a heart-stopping amount of money to follow through on his advice. Men will come to empty the tanks and Roberto will clean them. He'll clean the whole fuel system actually, and we'll replace the injectors a second time. We'll send the fuel away for analysis. If it proves not to be dirty, we'll be back at square one, much poorer.

Messina, for all its long history, is not a pretty town in which to pass the time of day. It was destroyed in 1908 by an earthquake and a tsunami, and then again by Allied bombs during WWII.  Its buildings are all low-rise, designed to resist future earthquakes. The fancy ones look like badly squashed sandwiches. Even the cathedral is ugly, sitting squat and compact. In Italy though there's always the coffee.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Time to remember

How quickly the past arrives. Pops has left us, and is already in Paris, on her way back to Sydney. So have Dave and Melinda who are flying back to Australia next week to have Melinda checked over medically. The first was expected, the second came as a surprise. Both happened on the same day, and so this morning, as we wait for the mechanic to come to the boat with the new fuel pump, we are for the first time truly on our own aboard Enki.

Yesterday, after the bus had taken her away to the train station, I cracked open and shook with shock of my daughter's departure. It happens like that for me these days. I respond to my children's love with such eagerness and pleasure. I relax into them, am revived by their knownness and charmed by the new shapes they are taking on. But I don't want to develop serious fissures around my heart, so I'll have to develop much more elasticity in my emotional flesh. Ironic, really. I who was always so breezy about the need to prepare my children to fly from the nest. Now I mourn the loss of that nest, for myself. But it is gone. We are in a new phase of our lives now. They will come and go. I will come and go. We are all flying in different directions, and this is what I wanted. Not for the nest to disintegrate, its straw grow mouldy and smelly, and finally fall out of the tree.

On our last day together, Pops and I took a hydrofoil out to Salina, the island beyond Lipari. Alex chose to stay behind. We left him in his usual position, book in hand, and expected to find him like that when we returned. For us, a day of meandering through the small town of Santa Marina, with its little shady shops cleverly designed to appeal to the discerning taste of holiday makers wealthy enough to own or rent houses on Salina and then a magical bus ride around the lush island to the odd ending of Rinella port where the sand is black and hot, and the sea warm as a bath.

When we came back to the boat, Alex was a changed man, shining with the satisfaction of having "done a few jobs". He'd been out too, searching for fan belts. These things make a man stand up straight, it seems. And so it has continued. And here is the mechanic wheeling a pump...

Monday, 9 July 2012

Settling into Milazzo

"This bread salad is ingenious," Pops says, pulling the stale crumb out of yesterday's loaf. She's making panzanella for lunch. No shortage of tomatoes or good oil here. The coffee's not bad either, and Pops already has her preferred gelateria, and gelato flavour (rock melon).

We have come in from the torpor of another Sicilian high noon, bringing hot ciabatta, a quarter of a watermelon and more Coke for Alex. He is "consolidating" in the aft cabin i.e. flat on his back. His progress is slow, but what's the hurry? The fuel pump which Roberto, our latest non-English-speaking mechanic, told us before lunch on Friday that we needed wasn't ordered until this morning, and though the notion of overnight delivery is well understood elsewhere, this particular pump, our pump, cannot and will not be in Milazzo until Wednesday at the earliest. For comfort, we are listening to Bic Runga, Dave Dobbyn and Tim Finn, playing Hamilton live, the well-loved tunes bringing the faraway softness of New Zealand summer into the cabin.

Pops is with us for five days only, and she won't be going anywhere on Enki. Not out to the islands, not even around the Milazzo harbour.  It's desperately disappointing - a bit like going on a ski-ing holiday and there being no snow, we've agreed, or going to the Bay of Islands and it raining all week. But we loved that holiday! We spent it watching the Australian Open on television, playing cards, cooking, fooling around. Who's to say that a week in Milazzo can't be just as memorable?

We have a few little routines. Pops and I go out in the morning, before the heat really sets in. One day we checked out all the clothes shops. Nothing for us there. Yesterday, after our usual coffee stop, we hired a couple of bicycles and rode to the end of the road, at Capo Milazzo.

After lunch we turn on the fans, pull curtains across the windows and read.  In the late afternoon we walk across town for a swim at the beach. We've bought a beach umbrella and we mark our spot like any other family. We are part of the throng.  No-one notices us, yet we are very different from everyone else. We don't scream or cuddle or caress or natter. We watch. There's so much to watch. 

We love the array of bodies. Women of all ages, shapes and size wear bikinis. No-one seems particularly self-conscious or show-offy, except perhaps the teenage boys, like teenage boys anywhere. The old claim their place on the beach like anyone else, and with no sense of being out of place. It makes a nonsense of the body worship on Australian beaches, or at least the ones we know, like Bondi where there is zero tolerance for imperfection. In Milazzo, there is true democracy on the beach. 

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Taking it as it comes

Swordfish boat entering Pignataro marina in Lipari
The word "cruising" is my un-doing. It implies a slow, stressless meander from one safe haven to another. Instead, Enki with her doughty skipper and wide-eyed crew has been purposefully making her way from one Volvo dealer to the next. This morning in Milazzo, on the north-eastern corner of Sicily,  we are waiting for a visit from our fourth mechanic, one Roberto from MilNautica, approved by Volvo Penta. You can guess the rest.

There has been an interlude, a lovely interlude in fact. Lipari is a town we hope to return to with Pops, should the engine oblige us with its cooperation in this venture.  Putting aside the stifling heat, which cannot be put aside at all and instead requires you to burrow into whatever dark place you can find in the hours between breakfast and cocktails, Lipari and the islands which surround it are exactly what we are looking for - a cruising ground with that potent Mediterranean mix of several thousand years of human habitation layered upon a landscape which to a surprising extent retains an essential wildness.

When I can turn my mind off from the torturous stop-start of the engine, and look around me, I am happy to be here.

Cathedral doors illustrate what the Turks did to Lipari when they came to visit  a thousand years ago
Yesterday we waited for Pops to make her way to us from Istanbul by plane and train. When she arrived, she set my world to rights. She has always done that for me, and for many others.

Ghosts of Romans and medieval monks in Lipari cloister

Monday, 2 July 2012

All he wants for his birthday...

Italy is experiencing a heat wave. Or at least I hope it's a heat wave. If this is summer in the Med, please please may we never again break down and be marooned under an active volcano on a day without wind. Yesterday we were slow roasted, in body and in mind.

Enki anchored at Isola Vulcano, north of Sicily
You'll notice I said Italy. You may also notice I said break down. Again.

We left Gaeta on Friday afternoon, bound for Greece. So sure were we that we were leaving Italy that Alex and I stocked up on Italian wine in anticipation of not wanting to do the same in Greece or Turkey. The wind was fresh, and then gentle, but Enki, as we've come to realise, needs barely any encouragement to scamper along at about 7 knots. It wasn't until the sun had set and we were about to cross the Bay of Naples that we gave into the inevitable and started the motor. See how easy it is to say it?

We motored for the next 24 hours. Usually, there's some grumbling on a sailing boat when lack of wind forces long stretches of motoring. Not among this grateful crew. It was enough to be on the water; as frolicsome as the dolphins in our bow wave, we felt. Plus, we were heading in the right direction.

Stromboli Island, and oncoming traffic
By general consensus, we decided to stopover at Vulcano, the southernmost of the Aeolian Islands and make an early start the next morning to catch the tide going through the Strait of Messina. From there, Greece in 40 hours. Too easy. Though there was no wind forecast, and we expected to be motoring most if not all the way, it was all in a good cause. We were up for it.

The next morning, the unthinkable happened. The engine didn't fire. None of us were ready for it, least of all Alex. He, like me, was deeply disappointed. "You've got to trust people, don't you?" he'd said to me in Gaeta where we were blinded by our lack of Italian. And on Friday, we thought that trust had been well placed. We had a solution, an expensive one, but nonetheless, we were on our way. As it turned out, we didn't have a solution; we still had a problem. A little Italian goes a long way in an ordinary situation, but not nearly far enough in a complex mechanical and electronic situation. The same will apply everywhere where English is not spoken.

So yesterday, we were back to square one. At anchor, with no engine, on an island - except unlike Ponza, this one smelled bad - "like a urinal," said Dave - and on the beach, instead of topless beauties, there were crowds of bodies caked in volcanic mud. I couldn't bring myself to go near the beach.

By evening, Volvo Penta's emergency call centre in Belgium (yes, isn't Europe wonderful?) had located a mechanic for us in Lipari, the town on the next island of the same name. Guiseppe in Gaeta would organise for him to speak to Antonio and Claudio about what they'd done, and then we'd take it from there. That's as good as it gets in the circumstances. It was Sunday, remember.

This morning, in the absence of wind, we accepted a tow (please don't ask how much it cost - beggars can't be choosers, especially in July in the south of Italy), and here we sit, in a marina waiting for a mechanic, again. He's a tall young man called Massimo, and he comes, thankfully, with a sparky little girlfriend called Claudia, who speaks a bit of English and has a pretty good understanding of engines too. We're hoping that when they come back from lunch, they'll unravel this little mystery of ours. It's boring us too.

It's Alex's birthday today, and all he wants is a new back (that old chestnut). Failing that, a Volvo engine which starts when he turns the key in the ignition. That'd make him smile tonight.