Saturday, 12 May 2012


Our intrepid friends, Paul and Consuelo Windsor, joined us three days ago in Mahon for the 240 mile trip to Corsica and we set off in calm flat waters under a blue sky at 7am having stocked up on fresh bread and croissants. Unfortunately there is no wind and we motor for most of the day and enjoy the glorious weather. However our forecast tells us that a Mistral will blow out of the Golfe De Lion later today and we have prepared Juno for heavy weather which we are expecting later this evening.

I find it fascinating that the Mistral often occurs when the sky is an electric blue with not a cloud in sight and even more amazing that it is caused by weather systems thousands of miles away; the high pressure system in the Atlantic known as the Azores High, and the low pressure system over Pakistan known as the Monsoon Low. In the Northern Hemisphere the wind flows clockwise around a high and anti-clockwise around a low, creating two vortices of wind which combine forces over Europe and funnel the resulting air flow through the Alps down to Marseille where it is spat out in the Golfe de Lion and blows at gale force in a south easterly direction across the northern Mediterranean Sea.

During the night the wind starts to build and by 3am we are reaching at speeds touching ten knots under reefed mainsail and jib but by dawn the wind has moved around to the West and slackens off and we wallow in large seas created by the overnight conditions. By 9 am we still have 60 miles to run and rather than use the engine we set up our downwind rig comprising the mainsail set to windward and genoa poled out to leeward on the spinnaker pole, supported with fore guy, pole up haul, guy and sheets. The wind builds again and with a big following sea and our fully powered rig we charge downwind towards Bonifacio, our destination where we will spend the night.

We enter the mouth of this famous harbour with high expectations and the scene is unquestionably dramatic with the high cliffs topped by battlements overlooking a long natural harbour. However this natural harbour also serves to funnel the wind between the cliffs and makes for very difficult docking as we try and moor stern-to with vicious gusts of wind blowing our bows off as we struggle to tie up on a concrete dock with lazy lines that are too short and no assistance in sight. After one attempt which almost results in us hitting the rough concrete dock, barely escaping unscathed, we adopt a more cautious approach, tying up against the fuel dock.

After our long night sail and the drama of docking we are all feeling exhausted and we walk up to the walled town on the top of the cliffs where we have an early supper and marvel at the heavy fortifications built on top of the cliffs that have guarded this ancient town over the centuries. Narrow streets in the shadows of tall stone buildings are lined with restaurants and occasionally we see stone steps disappearing into dark alleyways and it reminds us of scenes from Don't Look Now, that famous film with Donald Sutherland and Susannah York set in Venice. Tired and replete after warm goats cheese salad and steaks we head to the boat as we know that we have to vacate the fuel dock by 8am.

We are now anchored in a sheltered bay on the southern end of Isla Caprera in the Maddalena Archeapelago off the Northeast coast of Sardinia, more commonly known as the Costa Smerelda. The wind is still blowing at 20 knots through the anchorage and Juno is straining at her anchor in the gusts that sweep down off the hills and race across the relative calm of the bay. Our Italian courtesy flag is flying now that we are firmly in Italian waters after a very boisterous sail across the straits from Bonifacio, only 20 miles to the North. As we left Bonifacio at 8am this morning there was a gentle swell in the mouth of the harbour below the white cliffs which tower above us, indented with pill boxes which have served to defend this unique port over the years.

Despite this benign start to the day we have checked our morning weather forecast and we are expecting heavier weather as there is strong wind predicted in the Tyrennhian Sea which runs between the Eestern Coast of Corsica and Sardinia and the Italian mainland. As soon as we leave the shelter of the cliffs the wind picks up and we set a heavily reefed mainsail and jib as the first big gust hits us and we heel slightly and Juno picks up her stern and accelerates into the rising sea. I think initially that maybe we are under powered but as I am considering shaking out a reef we sail further out into the straights and the full force of the wind hits us. Juno feels nicely balanced but we wear lifejackets and harness lines as we can see ahead that the sea state is starting to develop as the winds blow ever stronger. We are soon in the middle of the channel outside the protection of the Corsican coast and by now the waves must be 3 metres high and the instruments tell us that we have gusts of over 30 knots, force 7 on the Beaufort Scale. Fatty plots our course to the South East on the chart plotter and we enjoy a wild ride across this notorious strip of water, bearing away from the wind as the waves hit our port quarter and then heading upwind again in the troughs. Our concern is to avoid one of these large waves breaking on our beam and unlocking the energy that can capsize any vessel. The rule of thumb is that breaking waves have the power to capsize a vessel whose length is three times the wave height, and at 17.5 metres long Juno is in no immediate danger. We enjoy an exhilarating hour as we weave our way through the waves, running off from the big rollers as they charge up behind us and eventually we duck in behind the Magdalena Islands where we now sit at anchor with Paul and Consuelo, enjoying a large breakfast and a brief respite from the weather before we head to Porto Cervo in the heart of the Costa Smerelda.  I hope Consuelo's video captures some of the fun sailing accross the straights in 30 knots.

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