Monday 20 February 2012

The Mediterranean Sea awaits

22 January - 20 February 2012
Five weeks at home.  After spending six months exploring much of South East Asia on our first extended sailing experience, five weeks was all the time we spent back in Australia before we again found ourselves at the airport ready to fly away to a whole new set of adventures at sea. The hours, days and weeks had sped by as we spent every minute possible with family or catching up with friends. Sitting in the departure lounge we couldn’t believe our time at home was already over and guiltily discussed all the friends we’d intended to see but hadn’t.   We spoke about our family, how good it was to be with them all and how much fun we’d had with the grand kids. The question as to whether going away again was the right thing to do hung in the air but only briefly before the anticipation of what was to come took over.
As empty nesters, two years previous we made the decision to make the most of what life has to offer. We decided to sell up our investment properties, buy a yacht and join the world of cruisers sailing the globe starting in the Mediterranean. Over the following year a series of sailing courses to gain recognised Royal Yachting Association (RYA) qualifications followed in preparation for our move onto the water and two houses were totally renovated for sale. While a global financial crisis, devastating South East Queensland flood and a severely depressed real estate market conspired to waylay our plans to sell up and buy our own boat, the trio could not totally derail our plans to set sail.
We simply decided to go and do it as crew on other people’s boats. What followed was six months spent cruising on two boats which saw us sail around Australia’s north coast from Cairns to Darwin, on through many remote areas of Indonesia and up to Malaysia. We then did some mature aged back packing through Malaysia and Thailand before taking part in a week’s fantastic  racing at Phuket’s King’s Cup Regatta.
Now we were about to start all over again. This time we were flying to Italy to join a boat owned by an Australian couple. We were finally going to sail in the Mediterranean Sea, be it in a far different way to our original plans. For a start the boat is something beyond our wildest dreams. A 72 foot Shipman worth far, far more than all our houses combined,  Moksha is a high tech, carbon fibre marvel launched in late 2010 that is capable of over 20 knots under sail. She will be our home for the first part of 2012. The second BIG difference was going to be the weather. Rather than the warm summer days lazily sailing the Greek Islands we’d imagined, we were going to initially put to sea on a cruising Ferrari of the ocean in late winter with potentially sub zero temperatures and scary weather systems capable of producing big seas.  A great opportunity to gain valuable experience as no doubt we will face heavy weather in our own boat one day.
But first we had some R & R planned for along the way before joining the boat. Step one was a stopover in London so we could spend some time with Marc, our crewmate from our journeys in South East Asia. When we parted at the end of our six months together as the three occupants of meerkat manor in the bow of Nae Hassle we’d all agreed we’d be seeing each other again but had never imagined it would be only five weeks later.

The Meerkat nic name has gained a life of its own.
Here's Marc's Xmas present from his nephew ready for sea.
Marc is also continuing with his sailing as crew and was literally just filling in time at his London flat waiting to fly to Mexico to join his next boat for a Pacific Crossing so was quick to offer to put us up for a few days. After flying straight out of the Australian summer, for us, London’s January welcome was far from warm. After catching the tube from Heathrow Airport, emerging from the underground to  a drizzling northern winter’s day had the both of us questioning our sanity.
Fortunately it was only a short walk to Marc’s flat and we were soon cosily ensconced in the central heating with a nice glass of red in hand. Our three way conversation restarted as if never paused with us all catching up with the each other’s Christmas news, happenings and plans. We spent three days enjoying pub lunches in front of the fire, long walks exploring Marc’s area of suburban London and doing not much else. It was great. A walk up to Alexander Palace provided us with a spectacular view of London from the site of the world’s first regular television broadcast commenced by the BBC in 1936.
Alexander Palace - London

All too soon it was time to load up our duffle bags and battle the peak hour hordes on the Underground for our trip to Gatwick Airport and flight to Italy. We let the first two trains come and go before we spotted what looked like just enough space for our luggage and us on the third. After quickly boarding and trying to shrink our bodies over our bags we reviewed Marc’s advice to us. “Be careful. It’s best not to make eye contact with anyone on the tube and whatever you do don’t smile. They’ll think you’re insane and trample over you.  Actually they’re Londoners so they may well trample you anyway.  After barely surviving the experience when it was time to change trains we paid the extra to catch the Gatwick Express to the airport rather than risk another encounter with the wall to wall manically depressed on the normal train.

It was a relief when the wheels left the tarmac and we were Italy bound. First stop Venice for a few days of playing tourist before catching a train east to join Moksha at the shipbuilding town of Monfalcone near the Slovenian border.  We’d been looking forward to the daylight flight over Europe but unfortunately there was unbroken cloud cover from the time we took off blanking out any chance of views – until we reached the alps that is. Miraculously the clouds parted and the snow covered peaks came into view in the afternoon sun providing some truly glorious sights.

Minutes later we got our first glimpses of Venice from the air. Seen from above, this remarkable city steeped in history, seemingly rises out of the sea on not much more than a sand bar yet it has stood proudly as a centre of culture for thousands of years. The airport is located on the mainland so we caught a water bus to our stop just next to the famous Rialto Bridge over the Grand Canal. From there it was just a short walk to our budget hotel. There are no cars of any sort on Venice so your choice is walk or hail one of the absolutely beautiful but exorbitantly priced water taxis.

St Marks Square and Cathedral in the background
 While the temperature was a cool 5C the skies were clear and there are definite advantages to visiting Venice in winter. For a start the hotel was $130 per night for a very nice canal front room which is much cheaper than summer. The crowds are much thinner making it easy to wander around the narrow lanes and alleys ensuring  cues at the attractions are much shorter or nonexistent. Also due to the age and physical nature of the city, much of the Venice’s raw sewerage finds its way directly into the canals and we’re told the place can’t literally be a hot stinker in the summer.

It was amazing visiting St Mark’s Cathedral and Square,  wandering around the Dogue’s Palace and through the prison cells that once held Casanova. A tour of the Opera House was an absolute highlight as it is definitely the most impressive interior design and decorating we have ever seen anywhere in the world but best of all was just wandering around the lanes and alleys discovering something  different around every corner. The little cafes and restaurants were fantastic and we enjoyed a couple of long lunches featuring some excellent wines as we sheltered from the cold.
The Grand Canal

Had we not sworn of the life of accumulating Stuff, Karen would of left with a trunk load of handmade masks and more shoes than Imelda Marcos. The quality in all the fashion stores was superb while the prices were a fraction of those in Australia. Even Rob was sorely tempted  a number of times but our policy of “If we don’t need it on a boat we don’t need it at all” withstood all attacks by even the most beguiling bargains.
Monday January 30 our time as tourists came to an end as we boarded the train for our one hour forty minute ride to Monfalcone and Moksha.  The boat was built at the Shipman factory in Monfalcone and after its first season sailing the Eastern Mediterranean returned to the factory for an number of fixes, modifications and systems updates which are typical for new high tech boats like this one. Her owner, Richard was back in Australia for the northern winter break looking after business while Tim, his Boat Manager, oversaw the works in the factory’s marina.

Our first view of Moksha. What a monster compared to all we'd sailed before.
Our train arrived in the early afternoon and Tim met us at the station then took us straight down to see the boat. The weather had been cold but calm in Venice however here in Monfalcone the wind was roaring producing a windchill factor in the below zero range that took our breath away as we walked onto the dock.  We’d researched the Mediterranean weather when we first started planning our cruising life and had read about the cold air pushed south off the Russian ice. It’s so dense and heavy it won’t flow over the mountain ranges near the Mediterranean coast but is squeezed through the gaps, picking up speed and roaring down the valleys to the sea. Monfacone and nearby Trieste are located right at the mouth of a couple of these high velocity wind channels.

Our first impressions of Moksha were that she was far bigger and more impressive in the flesh than all of the photos we’d seen. On boarding her we couldn’t believe the small army of technicians and tradesmen working above and below decks. With much of her interior finish, upholstery, inspection panels etc removed she was far from dressed in her best finery but we were still awed by her lines and state of the art approach to sailing.
By the extensive use of carbon fibre and other lightweight materials Shipman are able to build extremely light but very strong yachts that still provide all the creature comforts for pleasurable cruising. It’s like building a Winnebago motor home with the looks and performance of a Ferrari. Tim showed us right through the boat explaining many of her features and what works were underway. Considering the state of play below decks we were very pleased that we would be staying onshore with Tim in a villa until the boat was ready to go.

Yes that is ice hanging off the stern
We’d originally been giving a cast off date of February 5 but Tim said that had now been moved back to the 12th to get everything finished. With the icy wind roaring down the river at over 40 knots we were surprised any work was getting done at all. Add into the equation some software updates to the computer system and it was easy to see how things could be behind schedule. Why is that every time we hear the phrase it’s just a software update, won’t take long we shudder. It always takes a long time, then things don’t work and even more time is spent making the new improved version work almost as well as the original. Arghhhh! And it’s not even our boat.
The first leg of our trip will be a run down the Adriatic sea, around the heel of Italy to Malta where Richard and his partner Jayatma will join us. From there it’s off to Tunisia in North Africa, then Sardinia, the Balearic Islands visiting Palma etc and then on to Spain.
Before we headed back to get settled into the villa, Tim took us for a tour through the Shipman factory itself where a new 72 footer was under construction. It was incredible to walk around the carbon fibre hull and get a true sense of the grand scale of things out of the water and a bit mind blowing to think of the work involved. Even the gang plank is carbon fibre.
We settled into the villa quickly and everyday rugged up in layer upon layer of clothing before heading down to the boat to assist with the myriad of jobs that have to be done before heading to sea for a season of cruising. Tim assured us that the Bora normally only lasted three to five days so should end soon but a cold week quickly passed as we got to learn more and more about the boat and got to know a number of the Italian and Slovenian tradesmen. Fortunately most spoke very good English or we would have been lost.

On Sunday Tim was driving over the border into Slovenia to visit a friend in the capital Ljubljana, and we happily took the opportunity to go for the ride. The Bora was still blowing so we got our first taste of European motorways in the snow as we climbed through the mountains. By the time Tim dropped us off in Ljubljana’s main square we were happy to head straight to a nice cafĂ© we spotted and had a fantastic lunch and bottle of local wine.
 It was tempting to stay in our warm spot but the old parts of the city overlooked by a medieval castle looked far too intriguing so we rugged up and went exploring through the cobble stone streets. Set along the banks of a small river, the old city is extremely well preserved and very beautiful. We could only think how much nicer it would be in summer with leaves on the trees and all the outdoor cafes packed with people. As it was, we virtually had the place to ourselves but totally enjoyed wandering about for a couple of hours before retreating to the warmth for a strong coffee while we waited for Tim to pick us up.
Monday morning it was back to the boat, still with the Bora roaring while news reports started talking about a mounting death toll as most of Europe was gripped by a big chill. That evening Phil, the next member of our crew, arrived.  From Lancaster in England, he has a half share in a 35 foot yacht at home and was looking forward to his first experience of internet crewing having spotted Moksha’s listing on the web.  Like us, he was signed on through to Spain.
Tuesday and still the Bora was showing no signs of weakening. So much for Tim’s three to five days. We still managed to get a bit more sorting out done on Moksha but with the amount of things still to be finished by other people we were starting to hope they’d get a move on.  Another of the crew joined our merry band that night in the form of Tom, a 28 year old ex British Army Captain with the Horse Guards who was doing the delivery run down to Malta. He’d just been skiing in Switzerland and  thought it would be a bit of fun.

Phil's birthday bash
Another day, another day of the Bora and another day working around, over and under the shipyard people before a nice warm dinner back in the villa complete with a birthday cake for Phil’s  57th. Wednesday at the dockyard and guess what. The wind’s still blowing, the temperature is minus 6C before windchill is factored in and the white flag is run up. Richard and Jayatma are going to delay their arrival in Malta so we have more time to have everything finished and a better chance of the weather breaking.
Tom decided he wouldn’t hang around for the delay and organised to fly back to London the following morning while Karen and I decided to take a few days touring with the plan of hiring a car and driving down to Florence and Pisa. Karen has always dreamed of seeing Tuscany so this seemed an opportunity, even if it was winter.  
Rob was comfortably back into left hand drive mode having already been driving Tim’s car doing equipment pickups etc but soon found old habits die hard when we hired a manual shift car. The number of times his left hand dropped to the arm rest of the door looking for the gear shift was ridiculous. A quick change of hands later and the appropriate shift was accomplished.
With a good motorways all the way, Florence is only about four hours from Monfalcone – except when you reach the turnoff and the appropriate motorway south through Bologna is barricaded and closed due to snow. Bugger! A quick check of the map and we head further west towards Verona where we can take the road to Modena and then onto Florence. Modena of course is the home of Ferrari and Rob’s thinking maybe we can stop in at the factory’s museum and just drool a little. No such luck. They saw us coming and closed that road too just before we reached the turn off. 
The castle at Sirmione on Lake Garda

Out with the trusty map once more and we head for Lake Garda. Rob saw it on Top Gear once and thought it looked nice. It’s very large so a drive right around its shores and back to Verona sounds like a plan. Good news! The road was open even if most of the businesses were closed for winter. The lake is clearly a summer attraction but still very beautiful in winter and of course, no pesky crowds.
We approached the lake from the south at Peschiera and tossed a coin whether to head left or right. Left won so we were off on a clockwise circumnavigation with the town of Sirmione the first stop. Here the old town is at the end of a long peninsula protruding into the lake and is protected by a wide moat and massive castle complete with drawbridge. Once again the buildings are beautifully preserved and wandering through the narrow streets we came across no end of quaint cafes, bars and fashion shops along with a number of hotels. Coming from a society with only two hundred years of history walking past rows of six and seven hundred year old buildings still in use today is a bit awe inspiring. While there was no Bora blowing here, at -4 it was still damn cold strolling the streets by the lake and we were very glad the hire car had a good heater.
That afternoon we drove most of the way up the western shore of Lake Garda taking the time to get off the main road and explore the older parts of the towns along the way. Rob made plenty of photo stops of course. This involved leaving Karen in the car and saying I’ll only be a second, jumping out camera in hand but without taking the time to put on his heavy coat only to dash back to the car slightly blue and swearing to rug up next time. The process was then repeated ten minutes later at the next photo opportunity much to Karen’s amusement.
The road along the shore is extremely picturesque as it winds its way along the cliff edges overlooking the lake and the towns dotted along the way. We imagined ourselves on our Harley cruising these roads in summer of course, but soon realised it would more than likely be bumper to bumper with mad tourists in camper vans.

It was dark by the time we reached the pretty town of Limone and found a modest hotel that was actually open. The bar downstairs was filled with locals and being the only guests in the place we enjoyed a couple of pre dinner vino rosso (red wines) with them.  After a huge breakfast included in the price, we left with fond memories of Limone and continued on our odyssey of the lake.
Saturday was even colder as we rounded the northern tip of Lake Garda and headed back south with light snow falling. Despite the temperature it was a very pleasant drive with fantastic scenery and picturesque historic town centres.  After making it back to Peschiera to complete our circumnavigation we turned back to the east and made our way to the home of the romantic tragedy, Verona, where Shakespeare set Romeo and Juliet. The city centre is dominated by an amazing Roman Coliseum that has survived almost 2,000 years virtually intact and still hosts a full season of opera each summer.

If you want to go looking for Julliette’s balcony you will find it shown on most of the tourist maps. What they may not tell you is the balcony was actually tacked onto to an old building in 1936 specifically to satisfy the number of tourists looking for the fictional structure. Although we spent most of the day wandering the streets of Verona, funnily enough neither of us were that interested in walking a block out of our way to see it.
Florence was still calling – if we could get there. Maybe one of the two motorways had reopened so we hit the road again back towards the east. Modena – CLOSED, Bolagna – CLOSED. Time for plan C and two hours later we were back at the Villa in Monfalcone for the night before setting off again next morning. This time we aimed to hug the Italian shore to the east, cross the border and drive along the entire Slovenian coastline. Not all that ambitious when you consider it stretches for slightly less than 30 kilometres.

Phil came along for the drive and our first stop was at the Castle on the cliff tops of Duino overlooking the northern end of the Adriatic Sea. What we saw wasn’t all that encouraging as the Bora wind seemed stronger and colder than ever whipping the sea into huge fields of white spray. Were we really going to sail in this?
Wonder why this yacht was a bit low in the stern?

We made our way to Italy’s eastern most city of Trieste where we came to a complete halt when right in the centre of town at the City Square the Bora wind really unleashed it’s fury blowing a semi-trailer ahead of us off its wheels and onto its side. Boats in the marina there were being lashed with 70 to 80 knot winds and when Rob stepped out to get some photos (fully rugged up with only his eyes and forehead showing this time) he described the windchill as the most extreme he’d ever felt and literally burning his skin. By now we were all definitely feeling glad that our departure had been delayed.
The short Slovenian coast features two major port cities and then the historic  town of Piran, definitely the jewel in the crown. Built on a long point it was protected from potential enemies from the land side by a complete medieval wall fortified with a series of battlements. Stone breakwaters that once protected its fishing fleet now provide sanctuary for luxury cruisers, yachts and other pleasure craft. The town’s buildings and character have been well preserved and no doubt it is a popular summer destination for tourists.

Piran is a beautiful spot on the Slovenian Coast

We made this our lunch stop and wanting to warm up with a good hot feed Rob and Phil ordered the mixed grill while Karen settled for goulash and a side salad. Ten minutes later the largest meals we’ve ever seen landed on our table. All for about $13 aus each including the litre of house red we shared. By the time we’d finished we’d certainly warmed up but may have also put on a kilo or two of extra insulation.
Around the point from Piran, Portoroz is Slovenia’s southern most coastal town and described as the country’s Saint Tropez, the place where anybody that’s anybody goes to be seen in summer. It’s a very modern coastal resort town with plenty of appeal but for us lacked the old world charm we loved in Piran.
Finally the Bora stopped during the night and on Monday morning we enjoyed our first calm day on Moksha and were able to start a lot of the exterior, topside jobs we needed to do before we could set off. Suddenly less tradesman appeared at the boat each morning as more and more areas were finally completed. We we’re able to set up the interior salon and cabins again and by Thursday were actually ready to move on to the boat and start clearing out the villa shared by Tim, Richard and Jayatma during their time in Monfalcone of nearly two years.
Of course there was also the provisioning. We spent a lot of time in supermarkets buying food for the trip to Malta which is a job in itself when all the labels are in Italian. Which is long life milk and which is normal? What’s low fat yoghurt in Italian?
Rob may not have learnt to speak the language but he did learn to drive Italian. Apparently there are a number of golden rules. The first being lane markings are just a guide. Driving between the lines is optional. You should use whatever part of the road you want to. For that matter turn left only arrows mean turn left if you feel like it otherwise just keep going straight ahead. Parking on either side of the road is totally acceptable, whichever way your car happens to be pointing. If there’s no parks available, make one. Either double park or use the footpath. When approaching a red light accelerate or someone else may get there first and have to stop before you do. When approaching a pedestrian crossing do not slow down, do not make eye contact with pedestrians waiting to cross. If you do they will simply take it as a sign of weakness and be rude enough to step onto the crossing. Despite the ancient Romans building the first circle intersections Italians don’t seem to have developed any discernable rules for roundabouts so feel free to do whatever you like including taking short cuts. Finally the very most important golden rule, UNDER ABSOLUTELY NO CIRCUMSTANCES SHOULD YOU EVER, EVER USE INDICATORS FOR ANY PURPOSE AT ALL. They are an anti-Italian plot designed to undermine national morals and individual rights.
UPDATE Monday February 20 - A month after our leaving Australia, finally Moksha is ready to cast off for Malta – except we are currently sitting in the shelter of the Marina watching the wind gauge regularly top 45 knots as the Bora returned overnight. The forecast says it should drop tomorrow so hopefully if it calms down early enough to get out of our berth we may head to sea then. Stay tuned

On the waterfront at Trieste

We said the wind was strong

We also said it was cold.

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If you have only recently discovered our blog and would like to read how it all started, or work through our previous adventures, click the link to go back to our first blog entry. Stuff it. Let's just go sailing anyway.  We hope you enjoy reading the previous posts to catch up on our story.


  1. Hi, Nice blog.Your journey looks awesome and adventures.Mediterranean Sea was an important route for merchants and travelers during ancient times. And in this time it was giving hope for travel enthusiast.
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  2. The Mediterranean..... What a time it turned out to be!


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