Thursday 30 May 2013

Menorca to Corsica, our longest passage on Alcheringa so far.

May 15-17, 2013

The time had finally come to leave Spain and head for the French island of Corsica. Here we would be starting our summer cruising around the area we have come to refer to as the mid Mediterranean. We’ve now explored most of what the western med has to offer so now we’re turning our attention to Corsica, Sardinia, the Italian west coast and Sicily. That should keep us busy for a while.

We’d been watching the forecasts very carefully looking for the right weather window to make the two day, 240 nautical mile crossing from Mahon on Menorca to Bonifacio on the south eastern tip of Corsica. You have to be very careful as nasty gale force winds can sweep out of France’s Gulf of Lion and blow all the way to Sicily. These Mistral winds are most prevalent in winter but can occur year round and are far from rare in autumn. We looked at five different forecasts and decided that Tuesday, Wednesday looked good while Thursday was OK until later in the night when some strongish winds were expected in the Straits of Bonifacio between Corsica and Sardinia. After that the weather looked rubbish for as far as the forecasts went.

Our other main consideration was that we most definitely didn’t want to arrive at our destination in the dark. Entering a strange harbour at night is never a good idea but the waters around Corsica and Sardinia are thick with wrecks that have fallen foul of the rocky shores making it even more inadvisable. Averaging our planned conservative 5 knots the trip would take 48 hours so we elected to leave at 2.00pm. This gave us our largest margin for error on our speed calculations. We could go as quick as 5.7 knots and still arrive just after dawn or be as slow as 4.4 knots and get in before sunset.

It felt a bit strange spending most of the morning just ambling around waiting for the clock to tick over. Marc did have some fun though. Off he went to the Harbour Capitaneo’s office with the ship’s papers and all our passports to check us out of Spain only to be told they don’t do that there. He’d have to go to the Police Station. Armed with sketchy directions he miraculously found the said Police Station, took a number at the counter and waited an eternity to be told they don’t do that there. He’d have to go to a different Police Station. Off he went again with another set of suspect directions and in a truly heroic effort found the second Police Station amongst all the narrow laneways of Mahon. ‘No we don’t do that here. You’ll have to go to the airport.

It’s probably time to point out that the airport is miles out of town so Marc did the only sensible thing and said, ‘Sod it!’ returned to the boat and put the ship’s papers and passport back in the draw.

After all our boat checks were done we had one last look at the latest weather files before casting off and making a call to the fuel dock for a top off. We then headed out through the steep headlands at the harbour entrance and turned north east towards the northern entrance of the Bonifacio Strait over 200 miles away.
Menorca disappearing astern as Karen makes a log entry, an I-Pad app of course
Initially we had a mild 10 knot south easterly breeze blowing. The full main and full genoa pushed us along at five and a half to six knots albeit a little north of our direct rum line due to the wind angle.  Thin overcast was enough to make sure the sun wasn’t able to take the chill off the air so we rugged up and settled into our three hours on six hours off watch rotation.

By the time darkness was approaching about 9.00pm the wind had strengthened to around 15 knots and we were now scooting along at seven knots and up. It was a lot quicker than our planned five knots but we figured we had plenty of time to slow down later if need be. We also always intended to reef the sails down at night for safety so figured that would slow us down a little anyway. At night you can’t see squalls coming and with only one person awake on deck reducing sail is a very prudent precaution to make sure you don’t get flattened by any unexpected surprises.

We dropped the mainsail down to the 1st reef, re-trimmed the sails and waited for the boat to settle. We slowed all of a quarter of a knot. Within an hour the wind had strengthened further during Karen’s watch and we were up around seven and a half knots again. Marc took over for the midnight to three watch with conditions and speed staying much the same throughout before the wind eased just a little during Rob’s pre dawn watch through to six in the morning.

Our AIS helps us keep an eye on big boys like this one blasting past at 23 knots
We were now seriously ahead of schedule so, despite the daylight and wind strength down below 15 knots, we elected to leave the mainsail reefed to keep our speed down a bit even if it did go against the grain a little. We sailed on through the morning in that configuration and passed the halfway mark well before lunch. By mid-afternoon however the forecast hole in the wind appeared with the south easterly dropping right out to less than five knots. The engine went on for the first time since leaving the harbour and we motored along through the afternoon.

It's the little guys like this one in Bonifacio Strait that are a lot harder to spot at times.
Late in the day, the Sardinian weather reports broadcast on VHF were warning of thunderstorms along the island’s west coast. The wind had got back up to around 11 knots but also swung and was now right on our bow. Rather than bear well off course to get a reasonable point of sail we chose to keep motor-sailing into it but, with the sky looking decidedly dark in that region to our south, we decided to reduce sail further to the second reef mark just to be on the safe side.

Just as Marc settled in for the 9.00pm to midnight watch the rain started. Oh Joy! Karen took over at midnight and the rain continued. During her watch we rounded Punta dello Scorno on the island of Asinara off Sardinia’s north west corner and entered the Bonifacio Strait. Karen was thankful we had put the second reef in as sea state rose and the wind picked up into the mid twenties with a few gusts well above that. She and the boat both handled the conditions extremely well despite the unpleasant, wet, cold and very dark night.

Rob took over at 3.00am, just as the rain eased to just the occasional light shower and the wind calmed down. By six am it had moved back towards the south and the motor finally went off as the genoa was unfurled and we were able to sail again. After sun up the breeze continued to swing and went right around to be an eight to ten knot south-westerly pushing us gently along through the straight. We could have sped up with a bit more sail but decided to enjoy the ride instead. There was no rush.

Of course our mate Murphy stepped in with his law again. After ghosting along slowly through the strait in the light airs, as we approached Bonifacio the wind began to strengthen. By the time we were approaching our destination we had a fair swell rolling under us and enough wind to be hoping the marina was very well sheltered. If not mooring was going to be fun.

Trying to spot the entrance to Bonifacio harbour from the sea was far from easy as the high cliffs overlap and merge together. All we could do is trust our GPS and head for the waypoint we’d positioned on the chartplotter smack bang between the headlands. It is a bit daunting sailing directly at high stone cliffs hoping the entrance is really there somewhere. It wasn’t until we were well less than a mile from shore that we could start to discern the entrance.

We had to get nice and close before we could really see the harbour entrance
We surfed our way through the opening  and around the bend to have this most amazing harbour reveal itself to us. Deep, long and narrow, surrounded by high cliffs complete with medieval castle it’s no wonder it’s been popular with sea farers since the days of Homer and the Odyssey.  It provides excellent protection from almost all winds, except the south westerly one currently blowing straight in through the entrance.
Almost there surfing the swells into Bonifacio
Awesome entry into Bonifacio
We had some problems raising the harbour office on the radio and circled around the tight confines of the outer harbour waiting berthing information. Marc was eventually able to make contact and was given the far from definitive instruction ‘You can try the southern side of pontoons J, K or L.’ Looking at how tightly the marina pontoons were crammed into the head of the harbour, the thought of trying to manoeuvre the boat in there in the increasing wind was far from an attractive idea.

Fortunately, at that point one of the mariners came past in a rib, pointed towards a big catamaran moored stern to the town wall and said ‘Go alongside’. As we got set up to do just that we were relieved to see the crew of the cat all either on deck on the quayside ready to help us on. Normally when we manoeuvre the boat into a mooring we live by the adage ‘Slow is Pro’ and rarely go into a spot at more than a snail pace. Taking your time is far less stressful for everyone concerned and limits the chances of any damage to our boat or anyone else’s. Unfortunately, with a stiff cross wind blowing, the only option is to back in hard and fast otherwise the breeze will blow the bow across and turn the boat downwind very quickly.

So we charged backwards down alongside the big cat. At the last minute a healthy blast of revs ahead pulled us up with the stern half a metre off the stone wall. With the assistance of our helpers we were able to get our stern lines on very quickly. With those secured putting the engine into tick over ahead held us off the wall nicely but the wind had our starboard side leaning heavily on the cat. While six of our fenders and four of theirs were preventing any damage, it was still a bit nerve wracking to be bouncing off someone else’s boat.

Marc was furiously hauling the extremely thick and heavy portside ground line off the harbour floor to secure our bow. Pulling it up tight would hold us off our neighbour. He was being encouraged by our helpers who called to him, ‘Just keep pulling. We had to bring up 19 metres of line to get it tight.’ We looked on from the stern as Marc dutifully pulled, and pulled and pulled with a mountain of massive rope heaping on Alcheringa’s bow. Surely it had to come tight soon.

Nope. Instead we saw Marc, exhausted, turn to us with an incredulous look on his face and the end of the rope complete with heavy metal eye in his hand. It wasn’t attached to anything. It was time for plan B. We ran the otherwise useless line from the bow across to a bollard about fifteen metres up the dock in the windward direction and with much huffing and puffing were able to inch the boat’s bow across and get some separation between our starboard side and the catamaran. This allowed us to pull up the starboard ground line which fortunately proved to be securely attached to the harbour floor and quite effective in holding us tight despite the wind.

Tied up in Bonifacio at last. Note the pile of rope on the dock.
Marc with the culprit as the mariner arrives in the background to try and tell us to move.
We turned the engine off a just after 11.00am, 45 hours after leaving Menorca, signalling the end of our longest passage on the boat to date. We had relaxed for all of 30 seconds when the mariner suddenly returned in his rib yelling ‘No. No. Not there. Alongside the dock,’ signalling he wanted us to tie up portside to the dock rather than stern to. Rob then entered an energetic but brief debate with him explaining that we were now tied up safe and secure and, with the strong wind blowing, just why we were not going to move no matter what he said. He eventually raced away in a huff. If he’d actually assisted us to moor up the way mariners in the marina’s normally do, the misunderstanding would have never happened in the first place.
Bonifacio is a truly stunning harbour. Red arrow marks Alcheringa on her berth.
Interestingly, when we went to the marina office to book in, the staff there just asked what berth number we were in and filled out the registration form with not a word said. We did ask about customs and immigration to check into France but they shrugged their shoulders and said ‘Non’. So not only had we been unable to check out of Spain, now we couldn’t check into France. So technically we guess we’re probably illegal immigrants. (Boat people to Aussies)  If this fun and games with immigration continues this summer is going to be interesting.

Mahon to Bonifacio - 244.1 nautical miles - 45 hours 08 minutes
Average speed 5.4 knots - Max 7.9 knots
We were able to sail most of the way and were very happy
with both how direct our track was and our speed.
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