“Smooth seas don’t make skilful sailors.”
Sea trials in Malta with the boys
Our friend Sarah flew down with the boys during the Easter holidays for a two week sail trip around Malta. Unfortunately she got called away for work. And the weather gods were not always on our side. Therefore we decided on a more modest travel itinerary. We combined visiting the highlights of ‘magical Malta’ with some sea trials.
The boys had sailed before and helped out but always under strict supervision and guidance by sufficient adults. This time they had to operate as crew, providing extra hands and muscle for Winnie.
We picked a day where ideal sailing weather was predicted: 12 knot, steady wind. The captain briefed his crew on the marina drills, and we moved in and out of the marina flawless. We motored out of Valletta’s marina and port area. As soon as we had passed the mouth we were met by great swells and 18 knot wind, not quite as predicted. We even had a little buzz when our blow up kayak was about to lift off, and Yoren and Winnie were tasked to tie it down properly.
With the kayak secured it was time to hoist the sails! We raised the mainsail with a lot of resistance and then got stuck, very stuck. No matter how hard we pulled we couldn’t lift it further than halfway. Acrobatic pole dancing was peanuts compared to this!
Closer inspection taught us that 2 of the rollers snapped off. No way could we fix it there, so we brought the mainsail down and continued on the genoa. Unfurling the genoa went okay, safe the ropes being a bit oversized and the winches quite stiff from disuse, giving main muscle Winnie another nice work out.
We continued for a few hours on the genoa, practising tacks, climbing 4m swells. The stability and performance of the boat was excellent, especially given all the sea life that was clinging on the keel and rudder for dear life.
But as the wind kept pushing us back to Valletta and the genoa alone was not enough to overcome this, we went back to the marina.
Tired but satisfied we returned to the marina with a list of repairs. We greased all the winches and fixed the rollers for the mail sail. A check on the bilges brought to light some water damage on the crossbeam which we repaired thoroughly over the next days.
After the initial roller coaster getting out of Valletta mouth (swell time!), we had a really nice sail. The winches were definitely easier to work with, the main sail could be hoisted, the kids were pulling their weight.
We also discovered that sailing has a magical effect on Gitane. She simply doses off after a while.
Some dolphins came to play with the boat. The weather was nice, the sea was beautiful.
The only point of improvement was our autopilot ticking like a metronome. Tick tack, tick tack. Somehow this did not sound right. According to the previous owner it had always been like that, it just needed tuning.
When we arrived outside of Marsaxlokk we looked for a nice anchoring spot, to test our brand new Rocna anchor. We found the right spot, but when we pressed the windlass remote control, nothing happened. At first inspection, the problem could not be found. As we were unable to deploy the anchor, and the harbour did not have sufficient clearance for our keel; we had to go back to the marina. We motored back and took turns at the helm.
Great experience for the boys, to steer a 13,7m yacht!
Further investigation led us to the sail locker where we found a tiny completely encrusted fuse that had blown. But by that time we were already well on our way towards Valletta.
The third trip was a 100% improvement in skill level. We were all more used to the boat and working together as a team. Minor error was a fender that was left bobbing behind because of a faulty knotting technique. We were tacking most of the way, again excellent practise and getting our work out in, while Arthur was busy calibrating navigation equipment and fine tuning things.
After a nice sail we anchored out in a nice bay, close to a fish farm, looking out on some sheer cliffs and a small town in the distance. The Rocna anchor performed as predicted: once it bites you can bring on wind and swell.
Our new magma bbq was inaugurated during family pizza night, where everyone is involved in making homemade pizza’s. The wind made sure we could enjoy a 360° view during dinner preparations. Our own rotating restaurant!
The wind did not combine well with the air vents on top of the magma. We baked one pizza on the braai and the rest in the oven inside. It tastes good all the same. At night we were lulled to sleep by mother sea and we all slept like babies. The next morning we left early and took turns at the wheel under sail.
The maiden trip
End of April our extra crew member, Ron, a retired veterinarian, joined us. After the last preparations, the time had arrived to move out of Creek marina, to go and lie up outside Marsaxlokk. Waiting for favourable winds to take us to Tunisia.
We found a good spot outside Birzebugga. 3 Days and some pleasant beach visits later, the wind was right for an estimated 20h sail from Malta to Lampedusa.
Lampedusa is a small Italian island that lives mainly from tourism. In recent years it is known as one of the first entry points into Europe for the refugees, and anything that comes with it.
The wind speed was very moderate, giving all crew members the time to get used to a watch system. It would be their first night sail and night watch. Mother sea showed her kind side and told brother wind to slack it down. He listened so well, he lay down backwards, and we continued on motor throughout most of the night.
We rotated every 3 hours, taking time to enjoy the moon and stars, being out there almost alone in this vast amount of water, with the autopilot doing a swell job.
On our 27h sail, we spotted 3 sea turtles, just before we reached Lampedusa.
We anchored as the wind picked up. After a quiet night and day mister wind felt suitably recharged and ready to rock and roll. He kept us on the merry-go-round and rollercoaster for most of the night. We closed our eyes and slept.
At night we got visited by a full boat of the Guardia Coasteira. We tried out a few languages and shouting to and fro. ‘The person who could speak English’ was found and put on the microphone. They had all come out to inform us that we were welcome to stay on our spot for the night but we had to get out by 8 am as a big boat was expected.
At 7 am we started moving into the harbour, searching for a mooring spot and a place to fill up diesel.
The harbour was not deep enough, so we ended up circling around the fishing port.
It quickly became clear that not many Lampedusians speak English. Luckily sign language and a mix of French and Portuguese go a long way.
One of the fishing trawlers saw our predicament and invited us to moor alongside of them in exchange for a bottle of vino branco. Not only the fishermen were friendly, but also the shopkeepers and the local people. Top of the range were the Carabinieri. They were friendly, helpful, and courteous. We needed to clear out of the EU and receive the proper stamps in our passports.
As we were unsure about the weather we needed to find out how much time we had to leave EU waters after receiving the stamp. To solve our dilemma they even allowed us to check passage weather. Of all our border crossings, this is probably the most laid back and hospitable we have ever had.
The weather was still quite changeable, with an eye of sailable wind in the afternoon. Better take that than waiting a week in Lampedusa for another eye that looks sailable.
We had a constant wind ranging from 16 to 25 knots, and managed a speed of 6-7 knots on our Gibsea, irrespective of the barnacles, grass matting, and algae forest on our hull.
During the day a pair of dolphins left their pod to come and play in the turbulence of the bow. Really magical to see those slick bodies slide at high speed through the water. Performing some strange dance, twisting and turning, leaping, and surfing with each other and the boat. One of the dolphins had extensive damage to his dorsal fin (it was in tatters), but clearly that did not quench his thirst for a bit of playful adventure.
This time, brother wind roared on the whole night, and the swells picked up. As we had to be alert for refugee boats and remained under sail we took shorter night watches, about 1,5h each. We bolted across. Instead of reaching our destination by 6 am, we would arrive at 3 am.
Navigating at dark in unknown, rather shallow territory, littered with fishing nets, fish farms etc, is a bad idea. So we heaved too and sailed up and down a few times on our course until day break.
At sunrise we made our way into the sleepy town of Mahdia. We parked ourselves in front of the Police de Frontières, dusted off our French and cleared immigration and customs. Our trip had really started.