I’m a little late in writing this one up but I think it’s a story worth telling, and definitely a story I want to remember in years to come, so I’m going to have a go at getting it down on ‘paper’.
As you all know, Adam and I have very little sailing experience. I’ve done some dinghy sailing and a rather cold (it snowed) and miserable competent crew course (where I spent most of my time unable to move my fingers to work any ropes, huddled under ten layers of clothing and completely blanking any instructions as all my mind could focus on was a countdown to the next hot shower). Adam is probably slightly more qualified to live on a boat, having lived on one for years and learning the ins and outs of boat maintenance and getting lots of practice motoring and mooring in the busy River Thames. But we were rightly somewhat cautious about taking Hot Chocolate out for her first sail with us.
Luckily we have friend with tons of sailing experience (and the qualifications to boot). Tom very kindly offered to come to Sicily and teach us a thing or two about the open seas. He has now moved to Canada (take from that what you will).
We should have known from day one that the trip might not be quite what we had expected. After a clear forecast all week, the day Tom arrived it had changed to show storms, high winds and big seas. It was looking like at least two of our sailing days were out, but we were hopeful that would change.
The first day looked like perfect sailing weather. Hardly any wind in the morning, picking up in the afternoon and dying down again over night. We decided to head down the coast to a little town where we could anchor out, then sail back to the safety of the marina in plenty of time for the storm to pass over. We left early, overcoming a few initial obstacles like what to do with the dinghy and navigating the ever shifting sandbanks at the entrance of the marina. Putting up the sails and turning off the engine for the first time felt amazing. We were sailing (sort of, in about 3 knots of wind!) The sea was calm enough to make pizzas and try out some fishing and we were due to reach the anchorage about an hour before sunset. It was perfect.
Thankfully, as forecast, the wind picked up during the day and we had a great sail downwind for most of the journey. The seas were getting bigger but we had found an anchorage that would be well protected and when we set down the anchor for the night we were feeling pretty good about life. We were just about to open a celebratory bottle of 2 euro Sicilian wine when a fishing boat approached and informed us that the anchorage was 300 metres behind us and we would need to move. Unfortunately our anchor isn’t the easiest to use, so picking it up and resetting wasn’t ideal, but needs must. An hour later, with the sun setting and a pink glow glistening over the sea, we were ready again for that well deserved glass of bubbly. Until we were politely informed that we needed to anchor 300 metres ahead, exactly where we had just come from.
After a move or two more we decided it was time to give up. The wind had picked up so our plan B anchorage around the corner was a no go. We had little choice but to head back to the marina, into the wind. It would be our first proper night sail and although we were exhausted the adrenaline kicked in. We layered up and double checked all our navigation lights were on and working and set off into the waves.
The difference between sailing in the day and sailing at night felt huge. Every tiny noise is amplified and every sense is on high alert. About half an hour in Tom ran down to the front of the boat. The anchor had come loose and was banging against the front of the boat. We had no idea whether there was already damage done to the hull, but with the waves growing it was only a matter of time. I did the most important and brave job of going below to free up the anchor chain if needed (basically just stand in the forward cabin feeling nervous), while Adam grappled his way to the bow of the boat, getting covered in spray, and wrestled the anchor back into it’s cradle to get it tied back in. Tom kept the boat as steady as he could sailing into the waves. After 15 minutes on the bow, with it smashing into every wave, it was game over for Adam. Sea sickness took over and he spent the eight hour journey back feeding the fishes while Tom and I sailed the boat on our own.
It was cold, wet and pretty scary (for me, who was imagining all sorts of awful outcomes-holes in the boat from the anchor, Adam falling over board, a huge sea monster emerging from the waves and dragging us all below).
When we arrived back at the marina at 1am I have to admit that I was questioning what an earth I had got myself into. But despite this there were still moments of magic. Every spray from the waves flooded the water around with luminous green plankton. The stars were the brightest I have ever seen, and for a while the sails were trimmed so perfectly that Hot Chocolate was sailing herself.
The storm arrived early and for the next few days sailing wasn’t an option, but as soon as the weather had cleared a bit we set off the other way along the coast to a place called Licarta. We were beating into 25 knots of wind, and 2-3m seas, but everything seemed much less dramatic in the light of day. With Adam at the helm I battled my way below to grab some kitchen roll for Tom. We were chatting away in the galley when I happened to glance behind me and see water gushing into the forward cabin. My heart literally stopped. In that split second I was convinced that the anchor had put a whole in the hull on our previous journey, and that the boat was now sinking. Tom opened the cupboard to inspect, holding up a hosepipe that was spurting water everywhere. In my attempt to reach the bathroom while we were heeling I had knocked the salt water switch (which is ridiculously placed at leg height with no cover) and it was now hosing down Tom’s bed! Sorry Tom!!!
As the day went on my faith in Hot Chocolate and my ability as a sailor grew. We watched the sun set over the sea, with the spray in our faces and our spirits high.
The next day was forecast more high winds and we had planned to tuck into a marina and get shelter for the next day/night while we explored the town. Licarta was a pretty Sicilian town, with a castle high on the hill looking over the impressive marina. We made the walk up there twice, once to explore the castle and again at sunset. We ate out in a lovely little restaurant and drank a few too many cocktails!
The next day we made the journey back to Marina di Ragusa. We were sailing at a consistent 7 knots and nearly got up to 9 on a few occasions. This time, although we saw winds gusting to nearly 30 knots and 3 metre waves, we had built up trust in Hot Chocolates abilities. We were used to the heeling over and random clatters from down below. We experimented with the sails and the centre boards, and experimented with different combinations.
Although that last day bought the worst weather, for me it was the best day we had had on her yet. When we arrived back at Marina di Ragusa I felt confident that she is a boat that will look after us, where ever we end up and whatever adventures we get ourselves into.