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Mediterranean Westbound Passage Notes from Argonauta 1 (2004)

By doina — last modified Jun 23, 2006 10:07 AM

Published: 2006-06-23 10:07:07
Countries: France , Greece , Italy , Malta , Tunisia , Turkey

Kemer, Turkey to Port Napoleon France May to September 2004

ARGONAUTA I, a highly modified Beneteau 440, is on an extended world cruise, crewed by Hugh and Heather Bacon. We began in the Caribbean in 1997, transited the Panama Canal in 1999 and crossed the Pacific to Australia. Our passage from Australia took us from Darwin via the Indian Ocean and Red Sea to Kemer in Turkey where we left the yacht in dry storage winter 2003/2004.

GENERAL

This report covers items that might be useful considerations when planning a westbound cruise through the Mediterranean. A challenge for a world cruiser is that cruising areas are always new, at least the first time around. While it might be tempting to relive the experience of the explorer, like most cruisers, we prepare as much as possible by reviewing material produced by those who have gone before. Thus we arm ourselves not only with charts both electronic and hard copy, but also with up to date cruising guides. We explore relevant sources such as NOONSITE and the publications of various cruising clubs. Enroute, we track weather and notices to mariners using a number of onboard TX/RX devices such as Inmarsat C and HF radio. Despite our research, we encountered the unexpected.

We used the Rod Heikell guides for Turkey, Greece, Italy and France. For Tunisia we used the North African guide by Van Rijn and Hutt. All are published by Imray. They are good planning documents as well as useful approach aids. With web page downloadable updates, I found them pretty accurate. As with all guides, there are parts to criticise but without a guide, one would be embarking upon much more of "a grope through the Med".

TURKEY

Kemer Marina is a first class operation with an excellent maintenance facility. We departed there May 8. Cruising the coast to Datca our point of departure from Turkey, for the most part, we either sailed or motored in light airs. To save time for a bit of local touring, we used an agent at Datca to facilitate check out from Turkey.

GREECE

We noted several warnings about the Greek islands of Kos and Rhodes about check-in difficulties. All of these referred to the "bureaucracy". Thus we avoided both locations and on May 22, checked in at the third Dodecanese option, the island of Symi. There we enjoyed a hassle free arrival in this beautiful spot. Despite being a non EU boat, there was no mention of the highly documented Cruising Tax. We paid only a small harbour fee and E30 for the Transit Log. Officials were both welcoming and efficient. Needless to say, we recommend Symi as the most desirable check in point in the Dodecanese. One can anchor in the adjacent bay and bus to town or go stern to or alongside in the port. There is an excellent port director present who assigns a place and assists most ably in the docking process. He does ask for a small port imposed fee of about E1. Ablution facilities are rudimentary but private facilities are available especially if one breakfasts ashore.

We had been put off by stories about hoards of charter boats and overcrowded ports and marinas so we avoided many of the main tourist spots. We followed a route south west via the islands of Tilos, Karpathos, and Kasos thence west to Crete. What we had been unable to learn from all of the reference material is that Karpathos and Eastern Crete are affected by near gale or gale force winds from the north west seemingly most of the time. The many wind mills on the ridges and wind surfing resorts in Karpathos suggest that the Greeks are well aware of this despite no mention of it in the cruising guide. Certainly from my subsequent monitoring of winds in that area throughout the summer, (we receive daily weather via Inmarsat) there was a gale warning about once per week. Thus, we spent about five days windbound in Karpathos and another two in Kasos before we found a weather window. 15 to 20 Knots of wind from the WNW allowed us to smash our way across Kasos Strait to Crete in only relative discomfort. Incidently winds were not diurnal. Rather, they blew 24 hours per day until the air mass moderated. We never experienced a Meltemi perhaps because we had planned to exit Greece westbound before the onset of these seasonal winds.

In retrospect, from a wind standpoint, we had certainly chosen the wrong route to Crete. If I had it to do over again, I would make westing through the Central Aegean perhaps to Ios where contrary winds seem somewhat lighter. Prevailing winds might then allow a beam reach to Crete.

On June 1, following a very pleasant one night stay in beautiful Spinalonga Lagoon, June 1, we motored to nearby Aghios Nikolaos and secured in the marina. There we encountered our second scam. We refuelled upon arrival. The marina does not have a fuel dock so diesel is delivered by bowser from an outside supplier. Not knowing the going rate for diesel, I simply paid up at a rate of about E1.3 per litre only to find out later that the going rate was just under E1 per litre. I followed up and learned that the deliverer had provided an invoice to his boss of about E1 and had presumably pocketed the difference. Apart from the refuelling episode, our stay at the marina was good. The services and support are limited. Marina initiative could be better as there was no list of services available at the marina office thus forcing newcomers to duplicate the efforts of others in seeking out technical support. We needed a Raymarine technician and through networking found a very responsive individual in Iraklion. He was willing to visit the boat and was able to solve our wind transducer problem. Some cruisers winter here and there is a crane haul out system available but no travel lift. The Port Office staff are excellent and we were able to off load our two crew members from the Transit Log with no problem. I was uncertain about the check-in requirements if one anchors near a port but does not actually enter. I had done nothing and wondered whether the Aghios Nikolaos authorities might ask why it had taken three weeks to get there from Symi. It was a non-issue. They simply stamped us in as the second port of call. Aghios Nikolaos Marina was a good place to leave the boat for a ferry trip to Santorini. From a restaurant high above the caldera, we smugly watched yachts struggling to moor then seeing the crews climbing hundreds of steps up to town glancing anxiously back to see if the boat was still safe. Given the difficulty of mooring/anchoring in any proximity to the centre of things, we are glad we chose the ferry option to Santorini.

We had decided not to dayhop westbound across Crete because of the ever present risk of becoming windbound. So with a good weather window, June 12 we departed non-stop for Hania. The overnight passage of about 100 nautical miles was very comfortable in nil wind. A distinct improvement over motor sailing into the teeth of Force 4 plus!

The authorities at Hania have installed mooring buoys tailed to the quay negating the requirement to use an anchor. While space is limited, shelter is excellent. Even in a Force 8 southerly blow, we felt in no danger and it was easy to double up the lines. Again, ablution facilities are basic. There is a reasonable level of technical support and it was possible to have Australian/American pattern propane tanks refilled. Certainly, the port attendant was responsive and helpful. In water wintering might be possible here but there is no haulout facility or significant amount of hard stand. We enjoyed being in the middle of everything and consider Hania as the highlight of our port stays in Greece.

In Hania we were faced with a quandary. Our plan was to sail to Malta but we realised that with an onset of a strong westerly or north westerly wind we might have to alter course north to the Peloponnese. What to do about the Transit Log? In the end, we did a domestic check-out from Hania which would allow a complication free arrival at another Greek port. In fact, we were blessed with an excellent weather window which allowed us to sail over half the 450 odd nautical miles to Malta. We still have the Transit Log!

MALTA

Approaching Malta June 28 for an early morning arrival meant we would go by Hurd Bank at night. Not mentioned in any of our onboard reference material is that the area is an assigned anchorage for large vessels awaiting clearance to approach Grand Harbour. Multiple radar returns and an array of lights was the first indication. We promptly rerouted to pass to the north! Arriving in Malta, now a member of the EU, we found the Customs Dock in Marsamxett Harbour to have become part of the very crowded Msida Marina. Port Control had directed us to this location but when we informed them the dock was fully occupied they asked us to anchor and dinghy in. Customs and Immigration posed nothing unusual and since the marina looked full with no staff in evidence we asked the Customs Officer for other options. He put me in telephone contact with a new marina, as yet undocumented, in nearby Lazzaretto Creek. Manoel Island Marina unlike Msida Marina, offers a responsive staff and uncrowded, uncluttered facilities. It is also closer to shopping, bus transportation and technical facilities of the nearby boatyard. As well, the marina offers excellent ablution amenities. Cost is a bit higher than at Msida but still, the location and strong management make it the location of choice in Malta. I asked what effect the gregale, a north easterly wind, might have on the slips and was told that it was minimal given the position of the marina within the creek. The boatyard is a full service facility and offers an extensive hard stand for dry storage during winter. There is a newer marina in Grand Harbour but it is some distance from good shopping. Incidentally, it is still possible to anchor in Lazzaretto Creek without hassle and several boats were riding happily at anchor throughout our stay. Marina staff handled our check out from Malta and July 10, we departed for Tunisia. We took a look at Blue Lagoon on Comino Island which was impossibly crowded. So we proceeded to Dwerja Lagoon on Gozo Island where we anchored for a very rolly overnight before continuing early morning.

TUNISIA

We had intended to stop at the Italian Island of Linosa but we found no viable anchorage save for a rather exposed place across from the small port jetty. The Van Rijn and Hutt Guide is completely misleading about anchorages on Linosa. Rod Heikell has it right in his Italian guide; there are none! We continued overnight to Tunisia. Diabolical Med weather was in a changeable mode slowly moving from light airs from the west to intensified flow from the north. It was just as well we pressed on to Tunisia. We had a good sail from Linosa on the front end of a northerly change. Wind was up to Force 5 from the north which on our westerly heading allowed a comfortable beam reach. Eventually it reached force 6+7 as we toasted our July 12 safe haven arrival at Cap Monastir Marina.

There were no surprises at Cap Monastir Marina. Customs and Immigration officails are resident at the marina and check-in was complication free. There has been some refurbishment of facilities and the marina remains a favourite in-water wintering location for many cruisers. Security is good but the better spots are on the central pontoons away from the parade of tourists. Strong winds from an easterly or southerly direction make slips near the sea wall uncomfortable or worse. Dock management is a bit loose but assistance in docking is provided although we had to put our dinghy in the water to secure to one of the laid moorings. Management advised me that the waiting list for a slip during winter was approaching two years and a deposit is required. Dry storage is very limited and the yard manager explained that yachts on the hard would be splashed end February to make room for yachts coming out for pre-season preparation. Thus long term dry storage is not an option. The coed ablution facility is up to date and very clean. Cleaning staff are hard at work after 0830 hours which complicates the morning routine for late risers! Nearby shopping is excellent. Tours of Tunisia can be arranged through the marina office. We took a three day tour south to the edge of the Sahara desert.

July 21, we moved on and made for Yasmine Hammamet, a new marina about 40 NM to the north. Hammamet is a Tunisian show place full of posh hotels and package tour visitors. The marina is first class. Dinghy and tie up assistance is provided. There is a chandlery and fuel dock as well as clean ablution facilities. The marina has a large travel lift and there is an extensive hard stand where it is possible to leave a yacht in long term dry storage. The cost here compared to many European marinas is low but as might be expected, moorage is more expensive than Monastir. I was quoted about E1000 per year for our boat with a LOA of 13.5 metres.

Our last port of call in Tunisia was Sidi bou Said, a few kilometres to the north of Tunis. Our main objective was to see nearby Carthage and to visit Tunis. We set out July 23 and anchored at Ras el Drek just to the south of Cape Bon. We had to round the cape to enter the Gulf of Tunis. Another northwesterly gale forced us to stay at anchor there for six days! The anchorage is protected by the sea wall which creates the town's very shallow fishing harbour. In winds from the south west to north, shelter is excellent. Holding is good in sand. So while the wind blew up to force 8, there were only ripples where we were. But it was boring and the smell from the town's sewage was occasionally overpowering! We were glad to get out of there. July 29, winds finally abated so with an early start we rounded Cape Bon and arrived at Sidi bou Said before noon.

The marina has its shortcomings. Local boats are the main users and visiting yachts are accepted presumably to offset running cost to the locals. Visitors are welcomed by management and tolerated by resident boaters. We did not feel really welcome here. Upon arrival, we received inadequate direction to a slip which was located in a rather tight corner of the marina. With a short handed crew we had difficulty securing and no help was offered by a neighbouring local crew who were washing their upper rigging clearly resenting our arrival. Unbelievably, they allowed spray from their washing operation to soak our boat and crew as well as those assisting us as we were struggling to tie up! With over two thirds of a circumnavigation behind us, we are pretty thick-skinned but this incident severely tried our tolerance! However another local boater proved helpful in a number of ways and we did not allow the unpleasant arrival to ruin our stay. That being said, should we revisit, we would only accept a slip near the marina wall. With a bow thruster though, one should have no problem manoeuvring in the tighter locations offered to visitors. We noticed that many yachts in the Med are so equipped.

The Marina is in a prestigious residential area close to Tunis. The Presidential Palace is a few kilometres away. Thus moorage is more expensive than in other parts of the country. There is considerable technical assistance available but we did not require anything. The marina could not arrange to have our Australian/North American pattern propane tanks refilled. It is a long hike up many steps to the town which offers only limited provisioning. Taxies are available at reasonable cost so it is best to take one to the nearby shopping centre about halfway to Tunis. We did our provisioning there on the way back from a two day stay in the city combined with a tour of several sites of ancient Carthage.

SARDINIA

Armed with documents reflecting our stay outside the EU, August 4, we departed Tunisia for Sardina. We motorsailed most of the 147 NM to Port Malfatano, arriving mid-morning next day. In fact, there is no port. Rather, the area is a series of quiet bays on the south coast of the island about 26 NM west of Cagliari. There are several secure anchorages. We spent a couple of days there before carrying on to Cagliari. We entered the harbour and made for Marina del Sole. This marina came highly recommended by several sources as a comfortable and welcoming family run operation. We were not disappointed. We received a pleasant welcome and were provided with excellent assistance in tying up in a brisk breeze. This is not a posh place but it has all facilities and the owners are very helpful and accommodating. Indeed, we found Cagliari one of the friendliest places we visited on our cruise through the Med. The marina has several cars which rent at very advantageous fees even on a half daily basis. An amazingly well stocked supermarket is nearby and the city offers a number of excellent restaurants. Too, the citadel, ramparts, and museum are well worth a visit.

We met some crews who planned to winter their yacht at the marina or in dry storage at the nearby boatyard. Moorage cost is very reasonable compared to many of the marinas further north. As a non EU vessel, we asked about check-in procedures. We were advised not to pursue the matter as with the advent of the EU, there was no longer an established protocol. We normally winter our boat in dry storage and return to Canada. As we made our way through the Med, we began to hear that marina space in southern Spain, our original destination, might be difficult to get. We had made contact with one or two marinas there but we were warned by a couple of cruisers that this year in particular some planned maintenance closures might pose a space problem. Not wishing to test these warnings, we altered our plan and having received strong recommendations about Port Napoleon in France just west of Marseille, we opted to winter the boat there. Thus our route would now take us from Sardinia to Corsica rather than to the Balearics.

August 12, we continued up the east coast of Sardinia day sailing and anchoring in a variety of calas or bays. As we made our way north we encountered increasing numbers of day tripper boats either self-skippered or commercial. The pattern was a mid morning arrival and late afternoon departure leaving the anchorages relatively empty overnight. Most boaters seem to seek out a marina for the night. We encountered few if any world cruisers. At the cost of marina space, we judged not too many full time cruisers would be using these facilities. Long term, the inflated cost would break most people's budget especially those on a different monetary basis than the Euro. Being in this category, we found anchoring as the only affordable option.

Cruising Guides seem bent on providing extensive data on every marina, even those unsuited to a keel boat. Generally, less data was provided about anchorages. This is one of the major criticisms we had of the guides. Too often, good anchorages received only limited treatment and many other viable options received none. Perhaps this reflects the desire of local cruisers to overnight in a marina rather than on the hook. Obtaining fuel was no problem. Anchored in Port Brandinghi, we dinghied to the nearby marina fuel dock and had five of our jerry jugs filled. At E1.33 per litre, diesel seemed expensive. It certainly did not faze the many 15 metre plus twin diesel motor yachts awaiting fuel nose to tail before hurtling off to a day anchorage fenders flying! We were even able to anchor in Porto Cervo but here the crowding was unbelievable. With a blow forecast we got out of there early morning and found an excellent anchorage in a bay on Caprera Island called Port Palma. It used to be off limits as a military enclave but it is now open to all. The only activity there is a large sailing school. We spent a couple of days awaiting the end of the weekly gale and then with only a 36 hour window before the next forecast gale, we decide to sail overnight to Calvi, Corsica.

CORSICA

We arrived off Calvi early morning August 24. The view of the Citadel was breathtaking! Given the forecast gale we intended to go into the marina. Confusion reigned at the entrance so we gave up on that and picked up a mooring just off the harbour sea wall. This proved to be a superb option. The mooring field is planted by the town for the summer and its operation is separate from that of the marina. We found it well planned and serviced. At E 20 per day it is a bargain in the face of very costly marinas throughout the island. Moreover, the moorings enjoy excellent shelter from prevailing winds and it is only a short dinghy trip to the dock. At the Calvi marina, we would have been charged E61 per day plus 10 more for water/electricity and then one needed to pay E2.5 to use the ablution facilities! Heather commented that she had yet to see a bathroom in Europe worth a Euro!!

We were very comfortable on the mooring during the ensuing force 8 gale from the west north west. Shelter was so good that the dinghy trip to town was no challenge. With the end of the three day gale, we even left the yacht alone for a couple of nights while we took the train to Ajaccio. Port Captain staff were most obliging in allowing our dinghy to stay in one of their spots during our absence. Since we were now planning to leave the boat in France vice Spain, I decided to visit Customs. There was not much interest in us but the official did take the time to review the eighteen month VAT free protocol with me. As to how we were to establish when the period of grace begins, the official advised me to keep my marina receipts from Tunisia and those from the marina in Cagliari. So much for that!

Incidentally, we noted in the local newspaper that the Calvi Marina had been full all summer. Actually, from what we saw of the marina operation, we were glad not to be there. Personnel were often absent and frequently yachts were rafted up at the reception dock awaiting staff; this at mid to late afternoon! In the short time we were passing through in the dinghy we witnessed about four untoward incidents arising from vessels attempting to dock in confined space without assistance. Given the huge fees and the fact that the marina is an obvious "cash cow" the apparent poor service could only reflect a low regard for the needs of marina guests. Calvi Marina is not a place we could recommend.

SOUTH OF FRANCE

With a good weather window for the passage to mainland France, we departed Calvi September 1 arriving Villefranche next morning. We enjoyed the less crowded waters following the exodus of most of the holiday crowds. It felt good to be back in France, a country in which we had spent several years during our former lives. Villefranche anchorage at the head of the large "Rade" or rode was well sheltered with good holding once the anchor was well through the weeds. Over the next ten days we made our way along the coast even anchoring off the marina at St Tropez. There we bought our air tickets back to Canada, marvelled at the plethora of gin palaces and enjoyed a good restaurant or two. With two more anchorages off Ile Porquerolles and then Ile Retonneau off Marseille we decided to run for Port Napoleon as weather began to look iffy. We arrived at this large modern facility and with three staff awaiting our lines, we tied up by 1100 hours September 11. It was a good thing too as a series of intense thunderstorms brought torrential rain all night. The storm also severely damaged several yachts in Marseille there to participate in the Louise Vuitton sponsored races. This was our first rain since Kemer, Turkey. Happily for us, the storm washed all the desert sand from our upper rig which had accumulated during the many gales we had experienced in the southern Med. At Port Napoleon French Customs paid us a short visit. All they wanted was to see boat papers. We advised them of our intention to winter the boat there and they reviewed the 18 month VAT protocol with us. There was no other discussion.

We made haul out arrangements and engaged the resident company, Yacht Services, to do necessary maintenance. Their facility is large and they also operate a well stocked chandlery. I should point out that Port Napoleon management and staff were excellent in every way. All expenses were clearly defined and there was a clear and satisfactory response to any question. We opted to have the yacht's batteries monitored monthly and felt ARGONAUTA I would be in good hands. We departed for Canada September 29. I left a list of maintenance items with Yacht Services to complete in our absence. This is a first for us as until now, we have never been in a marina where I felt it safe to have work done unsupervised by me.

STATS

This voyage has been relatively short in distance but long in duration. Compared to some of our passages in the Pacific, Galapagos to the Marquesas: 2900 NM in 22 days, we seem to have dawdled. The Med though is a culturally rich area. Our objective is not fast passage making. Rather, we seek out interesting places and try to spend enough time there to learn something about each. As well, challenging weather prolongs things. A final observation: we were surprised to find some EU country borders so porous at least with respect to visiting yachts.

Some statistics

En route from May 8 to September 13, 2004

Distance run: 2041 NM

Engine hours: 345.5

Gale days including those in port: 23

Days windbound at anchor: 15

We hope some of the information in this account will be useful to cruisers especially those entering the Mediterranean from the Red Sea. We plan to return to the yacht in May 2005 and expect to reach the Caribbean for the completion of a circumnavigation late December that year.

Hugh Bacon, ARGONAUTA I, Ottawa, Canada

October 2004

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