The voyage of S/Y Spalax from Corfu to Gibraltar

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3 June 2009 – Corfu

Spalax set sail from Corfu, Greece, at precisely 600 hours on June 3rd 2009. On board were skipper and owner Marjan Golobic and his trusty Maltese crew, Diane Spiteri. The destination? Malta, naturally. After 64 hours of shifting winds, broad reaching, beating, reefing and motoring Spalax put into the Grand Harbour Marina at precisely 2200 hours, 5 June 2009. One of the highlights of the voyage was certainly night sailing over the moon-kissed seascapes of the Ionian. The second day into the voyage, the wind conditions changed considerably, and Spalax had to motor against a 15-knot SE wind and uncomfortably choppy seas. Friday afternoon the swell calmed down and the wind shifted slightly, so that Spalax could motor-sail under sunny skies and reach its destination on time.

Now Spalax is resting comfortably in a berth of the Grand Harbour Marina, awaiting further outfitting for her new Mediterranean adventures in August.

27 July 2009 – Valletta

Spalax is seriously getting ready for the big push across the Mediterranean, down the African coast to the Canary Islands and beyond: a Plastimo life raft was installed under the boom; a deep third reef was sewn into the mainsail; a cutter stay was rigged up; an external WHF speaker was installed in the cockpit; all the wiring was checked. The day of departure is in less than a week and Marjan and his trusty crew of two, Fergal Anthony O’Regan and his lady friend Ingrid, are itching to set sail for Sicily and then visit one of Europe’s active volcanoes on the island of Stromboli.


2 August 2009 – Valletta to Syracuse

Novice sailors, Fergal and Ingrid, joined the skipper for a week of sailing from Valletta to Palermo. We left the Grand Harbour Marina in Valletta at 6 am. As we were hoisting the mainsail, it got stuck on a fitting in the mast rail, so we sailed with the genoa only, broad reaching in a 15-kn wind. As we rounded Capo Murro di Porco, a pod of dolphins dropped by to put on an acrobatic circus show just for us, frolicking and somersaulting around the boat. We all got so excited about it that we didn’t take a single picture of the performance. On our approach to Syracuse, the wind died down, so we motored into the unimpressive pontoon marina. The novice crew, with Fergal at the helm, executed a flawless stern-to docking maneuver. Congratulations! And what was for dinner? Pork filets in tomato sauce with rice and green salad, washed down with chilled white Maltese wine, with mellow Brazilian music in the background.


3 August 2009 – Syracuse

All the way from Valletta Ingrid kept raving about Sicilian cannoli, not to be confused with cannelloni. So what did we have for breakfast? The tastiest, freshest cannoli in Syracuse – very filling and absolutely delicious. The trick is to stuff the cannoli with the ricotta cheese filling just before serving, otherwise the crusty outer layer gets all soggy.

We spent all day exploring the old town of Syracuse, which seemed rather dilapidated. There were for-sale signs everywhere. Fergal explained that no one wants to invest in real estate here, because they would have to pay off so many officials and other Mafiosi to get the permits and cut through all the red tape. We also visited a Greek and a Roman amphitheatre in the scorching heat of the afternoon.

4 August 2009 – Syracuse to Reggio Calabria

Having fixed the mainsail hoisting mechanism, we left Syracuse, as usual with Fergal at the helm. The SE wind was increasing in by mid-afternoon it was blowing 15 kn – perfect conditions for a butterfly configuration. Ah yes, the dolphins put in a command performance, which was even better than the one two days earlier. At about 3 pm, the wind suddenly died down completely, and we were becalmed somewhere between Calabria and Sicily. Then it shifted to the north and went from 0 kn to 30 kn in half an hour. We turned on the engine and started motoring towards Messina, slamming into the waves. It was an uncomfortable ride with massive Mount Etna watching our progress from far away. Night was approaching, so we decided to seek shelter in the harbour Reggio Calabria. Our helmsman again performed flawlessly, bring Spalax alongside the dock in the sheltered part of the harbour.

5 August 2009 – Reggio Calabria – Lipari

We did not waste any time in the dirty port of Reggio Calabria. The wind was down and the skies were overcast, so we motored towards the straits of Messina. Back in Brussels we were warned about the treacherous currents in the straits, but we had no problem negotiating the narrow passage between mainland Italy and Sicily. We did, however, observe a big catamaran in front of us, as it suddenly started drifting sideways towards Sicily when it hit a strong current. The NW wind was right on the nose. We had to motor to Lipari where we dropped anchor in a well-protected bay. The weather improved: clear skies, full moon shining through the rigging of a white-hulled, old-time schooner – a perfect photo opportunity.

We enjoyed a dinner of chicken escalopes in tomato sauce and couscous washed down with two bottles of Chardonnay. As daylight faded behind the island and the full moon climbed higher, we were lullabyed by the gentle swell of the Mediterranean sea.


6 August – 2009 Lipari – Stromboli

After a leisurely breakfast of yoghurt, coffee and cereals, we set sail for our next exciting destination – the active volcano of Stromboli. Broad reaching past Panarea, we reached Stromboli at 6 pm, double-anchoring close to shore in deep water, as there are very few shallow spots. We rowed our dinghy ashore, put on our climbing shoes and started hiking through the tourist-congested streets of the village towards the volcano. Soon we were alone on the path to the viewpoint. It was getting dark, so we put on out head lamps and continued the climb. Suddenly, we head a loud thunder and as we looked up there were glowing fireballs flying out of the volcano’s crater and tumbling down the slope to the sea. We hurried up to the viewpoint to get a closer look at this spectacular performance of mother nature. We were not disappointed. Every 15 minutes the vulcano treated us to a fantastic pyrotechnic show, each time slightly different, as if there were several vents in the crater, each erupting at a different time. Returning to the black volcanic beach where we left the dinghy, we discovered that it was almost completely deflated. The skipper had to swim to the boat to get the pump. He came back with his flippers on. We inflated the dinghy and Fergal and Ingrid rowed back to the Spalax, while the skipper swam back in the lukewarm water of the Mediterranean.

7 August 2009 – Stromboli – Panarea

The main anchor started dragging during the night, but the auxiliary one held fast. Nevertheless we left early for Panarea, the land of the rich and famous. Panarea’s character is quite unique. There are no hordes of Stromboli day-trippers, no excited gesticulations of vacationing Italians of Lipari. Panarea is suffused with the discreet charm and understated elegance of the wealthy. The architecture is in perfect synch with the backdrop of volcanic rock formations.

We were told we’d just missed Naomi Cambell. Well, she’ll just have to hurry back to the island, if she wants to see us off, as we set sail for Palermo.

8 – 9 August 2009 – Panarea to Palermo

The overnight sail from Panarea to Palermo was rather uneventful. Marjan and Fergal took turns at the helm every two hours during the night. The wind refused to cooperate, so we motor-sailed most of the way under clear skies with the Milky Way providing just enough visibility.

10 August 2009 – Palermo, Eriche, Cefalu

In Palermo in August you can’t really take you time eating your ice cream. It is scorching hot. Fortunately Fergal rented an air-conditioned car to take us to Eriche up in the mountains of the hinterland where the fresh breeze cooled our overheated bodies. Palermo is a city of half a million people encircled by parched mountains. As we left the coast on our way to Eriche the scenery changed completely: nothing but pleasant, rolling vineyards and wheat fields.

We also visited the ancient town of Cefalu and its basilica with its eclectic arcihitecture of scalloped Greek columns and flamboyant Gothic arches. The tourist business is booming in Cefalu, and one of the central features is the beach bar called Maljk, complete with jacuzzi and swimming pool. We recommend a frosty caipirinha or a mojito to bring out the colours of the fiery August sunset.


11- 12 2009 August – Palermo to Porto Teulada, Sardinia

Fergal and Ingrid left Spalax to continue their Sicilian adventure. Only the skipper stayed on board to continue the voyage single-handedly. An overnight sail to Sardinia. A large thermos bottle of strong coffee sure came in handy during the long night hours of motor-sailing. Arriving in the marina of Porto Teulada at the southern tip of Sardinia, Marjan tried to berth at one of the pontoons, but the employee said that all the berths had been booked. The skipper cast anchor in the bay just outside the marina and watched an evening show of thunderless chain lightning in the distance. The wind changed direction during the night several times, but the storm spared Porto Teulada.

13 August 2009 – Carloforte, Sardinia

There was no diesel fuel to be had in the harbour of Porto Teulada. Spalax had to make it on fumes to Carloforte to refuel and then set sail for Minorca. Another overnight, single-handed sail to Minorca was in store for the skipper of Spalax.

14 August 2009 – Mahon, Minorca

The Mediterranean in August is unforgiving: never enough wind to do some real sailing. Except, of course, in Greece where the Maltemi blows regularly every day like clockwork. So, another night of motor-sailing and drinking large quantities of coffee to reach the deep bay of Mahon on Minorca. After refueling, Spalax set sail for Palma, Mallorca to keep an appointment with an additional crew member. A 15-knot breeze from SE filled the sails of Spalax and helped it on its way to Palma.

15 August 2009 – Minorca to Palma, Mallorca

Single-handedly negotiating all the obstacles of the light-polluted bay of Palma at night was tricky business. But Spalax made it safely inside the harbour, berthing in the Royal Nautical Club of Palma de Mallorca. No one showed up to roll out the red carpet. No one came to ask for the boat’s papers. No one bothered to enquire about the previous port of call or the port of destination. We plugged into the shore power and topped up the water tanks. WiFi was also available free of charge. Spalax’s new crew member, Diane, flew in from Madrid. Things were looking up.

16 August 2009 – Palma

The crew of one needed a long rest after several nights of single-handed sailing. The extreme heat did not make sleeping any easier. Diane and Marjan spent the day getting the boat ready for the next leg to Gibraltar. There was also time to take in the sights and sounds of Palma and sample the local cuisine. The paella was particularly tasty.

Still no marina officials to ask for the boat’s papers…

17 – 18 August – Palma to Alicante

Spalax left the Royal Nautical Club of Palma de Mallorca the way it arrived – unnoticed and without a fuss. If no one showed the slightest interest in Spalax and its crew, well then, thank you very much – we certainly do wish to reciprocate. After refueling, Spalax was on its way to Alicante. All sails were up, flapping in a tail wind of 15 knots. Just not enough for a cruising speed of 7 knots, so we motor-sailed. Late in the morning we turned off the engine to let it cool down and sailed at 3.5 knots. By late afternoon the wind died down completely, but the heavy swell abeam made the boat roll uncomfortably. Diane stayed in the cockpit while Marjan tried to keep his balance slaving away in the galley. Soon he conjured up a tasty meal of chicken meat in a mushroom and cream sauce with couscous and white Spanish wine. The heavy rolling of the boat didn’t make the evening meal in the cockpit any less enjoyable. As it was getting dark, we decided not to risk the shallow passage between Ibiza and Formantera. Instead we sailed due south and gave Formantera a wide berth on our way to Alicante.

We made it to Alicante just before nightfall on August 18, and were assigned a berth after refueling. In the morning we discovered five inches of fresh water in the engine compartment. It must have come from one of the water tanks. On closer insepction we noticed that one of the hoses of the galley water pump was leaking. It was nothing serious, so we left it for later.


19 – 21 August 2009 – Alicante to Gibraltar

As we were leaving the Alicante harbour, the engine temperature alarm came on with a loud beep. We immediately turned off the engine and cast anchor right in the middle of the harbour’s entrance. Diane called the marina reception, and after only ten minutes the marina official came to tow us back to the visitors’ pontoon. We asked for a mechanic to come and repair our engine but he was too busy repairing a huge luxury motor yacht at the nearby pontoon. So the crew decided to repair the engine on their own. It was a simple matter of dismantling the engine’s water pump and replacing the impeller, which took us about an hour. We also bought a spare impeller just in case. And since we were at it, we also repaired the galley water pump which was leaking and flooding the engine compartment. The outlet hose was cracket right next to the clip fitting. We cut off the cracked bit of the hose with a hacksaw and clip-fitted it back to the pump.

At about 4 pm we finally left Alicante and headed for Gibraltar. The engine worked fine and the galley water pump didn’t leak a drop of water. As there was no wind to speak of, we left the main sail up and motored towards Cabo de Gata. The heavy swell abeam continued all night, and the engine started giving off puffs of white smoke. Occasionally it would also lose power for no apparent reason, and after a few seconds resume regular operation. When we reached the wild and arid cape of Cabo de Gata, we dropped anchor and went for a much needed swim.

The night of August 20 was rather uneventful. On a night shift, the skipper noticed two phosphorescent torpedoes streaking under the Spalax – two dolphins on their way to the Spanish coast.

Glassy seas continued all night. In the morning of August 21, we were greeted by sunny yet slightly hazy skies. Neither the African nor the European coast was visible on our approach to Gibraltar. Suddenly a speedboat with two guys and two topless babes shot out of the haze, throttled down and came abeam. All four passengers were gesticulating and yelling excitedly, “Marbella, Marbella.” The skipper was at the helm and at first couldn’t figure out their strange behaviour. It finally dawned on him that they were completely lost and wanted directions to get back to the town of Marbella on the Spanish coast.

The chart plotter was telling us that we were an hour from our destination, yet there was no land in sight. Huge cargo ships were all around, but no land. Suddenly the imposing rock of Gibraltar mushroomed out of the haze almost in front of us: the GPS was right after all. Dwarfed by the imposing rock of Gibraltar, Spalax made its way past the commercial harbour to Marina Bay right next to the airport. It was getting dark; an open-air concert was going full blast in the Ocean Village; the Rock was turning on its lights; the Levante was whipping up a permanent white cap over The Rock. One of the two Pillars of Hercules, the gateway to the New World. We have arrived to the end of the Old World and Spalax is poised for the big push across the Atlantic.


August 22 – Gibraltar

There was no mechanic to be had. It was Saturday, their day off. We completed a job order at the Sheppard’s Chandlery, detailing our engine trouble. It was faxed to the Sheppard’s workshop with a promise that the engine would be looked at and repaired in a few weeks time. So what else could we do but visit the Rock, its free-range monkeys and duty-free shops (A liter of VAT 69 whiskey costs less than 5 EUR).

The Gibraltar International Airport is unique in the world. It is bisected by an international highway connecting Gibraltar with Spain. Whenever a plane is landing or taking off, the gates on both sides of the runway come down, stopping all road traffic. Also, all vessels are forbidden to enter or leave Marian Bay, because of the proximity of the airport. We wouldn’t want the 14-meter mast on the Spalax to be sucked into the jet engine of a Jumbo Jet, would we.

Gibraltar, or Gib to the initiated, is an impressive place. From the featureless Andalusian plain rises a massive monolith of limestone called The Rock. Crouching along its gentler western flanks are the old fortifications, the residential district, the commercial port and the tourist facilities. Its eastern side is a sheer rock face plunging into the Mediterranean sea with a huge abandoned water catchment at its foot. The highest point of The Rock is off limits as it contains sensitive military and communication installations, but the second highest is accessible to everyone by cable car.


So what’s the upshot of the Mediterranean cruise of the Spalax? What are the lessons learned, the experiences gained? The crew certainly appreciated the highlights such as Stromboli’s pyrotechnics, Panarea’s subdued sophistication, the aquatic gymnastics of the dolphins, the mighty Rock of Gibraltar. On the downside, cruising the Med in August on a tight schedule can be a challenging proposition. The winds were too weak and irregular to do any real blue-water sailing, which meant motoring for days on end. The boat’s engine was given a good workout resulting in a faulty impeller and white smoke in the exhaust. Our advice is, cruise the Med when you are retired and don’t have to keep to a schedule.