Saturday, 9 August 2014

Stromboli Erupts

We are in the Aeolian Islands off the north coast of Sicily.  Not far from mainland Italy, yet too remote for most. Grouped by name but each resolutely individual: the isolated brothers, Alicudi and Filicudi; the bohemian and glamorous sister, Panarea; the wooded and fertile mother, Salina and the moody and unpredictable patriarch, Stromboli.

We are very familiar with the sight of buoys of all shapes and sizes near the coastline, marking fishing pots suspended below the surface and I alter our course slightly to avoid the yellow dot ahead.  As we near, the buoy appears bigger than usual, bright yellow in colour with some unusual markings. Cameron and Samuel clamour at the guardrail as we decide to retrieve this unusual piece of flotsam and Gill dives over the side to recover the bright yellow inflatable duck that is drifting on a westerly course towards Sardinia.  For the remainder of our stay in the islands, Cheryl Cole, so named by Samuel, sits in the cockpit looking around seductively with her large black eyes and long eyelashes until one day Samuel unplugs Cheryl’s stopper and announces that she has gone to heaven.

I think that the Mediterranean in the summer is a glorious place to be. Lipari is the largest and most populous of the Aeolian Islands and on a Sunday night in August the streets of the old town are thronged with holiday makers, promenading in their party best, browsing the shops and members of the opposite sex, as the girls sashay in silk and the boys prowl in plimsoles. After dinner we stop for gelati at one of the restaurants on the pedestrian street leading to the port.  Tables are arranged on the pavement where a band of three young Italians is playing: two guitars and a set of bongo drums.  The charismatic lead singer plays acoustic guitar, cool in drainpipe jeans and converse pumps, he has already mastered the reluctant smile of the budding rock star.  The drummer is enthusiastic and enjoying his moment in the spotlight. He smiles at a group of friends who are draped around a table at the front to support the musicians on stage.  The band embarks on a medley taking in Pink Floyd, Buddy Holly, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones followed by an Italian rendition of Peter Tosh’s Legalise, which goes down well with the liberal audience.   Samuel, aged nine, nonplussed by his surroundings has fallen asleep on the bench, feet on his mother’s lap, head resting behind Caroline; perhaps dreaming of Cheryl.

After two disturbed nights at bumpy anchorages we pay an extortionate amount for a night of calm, air-conditioned sleep at the marina in Salina. Gill and Lisa treat us to supper at Porto Bello, a restaurant with a cool whitewashed interior and terrace overlooking the harbour.  Handicapped by vodka and tonic, Lisa and I, (team introvert) take on Fatty and Gill, (noisy extroverts) at a game of Articulate.  We are starting to fall behind when Lisa, somewhat in desperation, attempts to convey the word Sahara to me, ‘sounds like Bahara’ she ventures. Gill and Fatty cry foul and we are rescued by the arrival of the Peruvian wine waiter.  Beneath the restaurant on a lower terrace, a fashion show is about to start. We take our seats at the front and watch the beautiful models showcasing a local designers collection. Then it’s the turn of the B team, slightly less willowy and less convincing as they display handbags made of fluorescent jelly. Lisa slips away back to the boat when a burst of static from the portable VHF reminds us that the boys are home alone on Juno watching a film and need a mothers cuddle before sleep.

Anchored in the bay of Milazzese in Panarea, Fatty and Lisa are producing more delights from the galley when the gas runs out. No problem, we have a spare canister. However, it seems that the thread on the new bottle is damaged and our regulator won’t screw in sufficiently to release the gas.  It is seven thirty in the evening and even on Panarea we suspect that it is too late to get a replacement. In the marina in Salina, Gill had met Paolo, the owner and skipper of Magiacuattro, a beautiful Swan ketch, which is also anchored near us in the bay and he suggests that we dingy across and see if he will lend us some gas. Paolo is immediately helpful and charming and he hands us a new container, asking us to return it later as they plan to leave for Naples at six the next morning. When we return the gas bottle after supper, Paolo has arranged for Nuncio, a contact in Panarea, to order two replacement cylinders from Lipari that will be ready for us to collect by midday.  He also gives us his card and a note inviting us to his hotel on Capri which he says has ‘the best view in Capri – some say in the world!’   The sailing community, although fluid and itinerant by its nature, is always generous and keen to help, knowing that one day they too may need to rely on the assistance of another yachtsman.


After a night ashore in  Panarea we make the short fetch across to the brooding hulk of Stromboli. We are only yards from the shore but the echo sounder is reading depths in excess of 100 metres, measuring the tightly packed contours of the seabed formed by the distinctive conical shape that continues deep below the water line.  As we sail along the leeward side of the island we are peppered with volcanic ash that falls from the clouds and gathers in the cockpit drains beneath my feet. Stromboli is the most monitored volcano in the world with minor eruptions every twenty minutes and a major eruption once or twice per year.   Ando, the water taxi driver, tells us that the guided walk up to the caldera is closed: ‘The volcano is very angry today, very dangerous’.  We are at anchor on the northern tip of the island near the town of San Vincente when I hear a loud thump from the volcano, like a clap of thunder but deeper and more muffled.   A huge cloud of dark black smoke spews out of the summit and climbs high in the sky, lit by the sun it engulfs the top of the volcano and then falls to the sea, raining more ash particles over the anchorage.  We later learn that this eruption was unusually powerful and caused a collapse of part of the crater.

The streets of San Vincenzo, the capital of Stromboli, are paved alleyways snaking between white-washed walls; too narrow for a car but perfect for three wheelers and golf buggies which whiz around the port.  Because of all the volcanic activity we decide to go to the Observatorio restaurant, perched on the cliffs on the northern coast and as close as anyone dares to the active crater of the volcano. The short taxi journey is like a theme park ride, the little cab is on rails as it rattles down the alleys, missing walls by centimetres and tourists by inches; our driver frequently takes both hands from the handlebars to gesticulate, palms upwards in astonishment.  We arrive at the restaurant at sunset and from our table on the terrace we can clearly see the lava flow: crimson rivers streaming down the mountain to the sea, where plumes of white smoke rise from the water as molten rock cools and turns to gentle pumice. These eruptions are much more violent than our last visit to Stromboli in 2012, and we hear from the waitress that this level of activity is extremely rare.

It is an enchanting walk back to the port from the restaurant. The rough footpath of rock and black ash, bordered on both sides by tall pampass grass swaying in the warm evening breeze, winds steeply down the mountain and joins the network of tiny alleyways of San Bartolomeo.  There are no street lights; in fact there are no streets, just paved walkways where both residents and visitors stroll, torches in hand, with no fear for their safety.  Every so often we come across a shop or a restaurant; small oases of light in the otherwise dark lanes.  We pass a tiny open-air cinema showing a black the white film of Stromboli with Ingrid Bergman, on a screen erected against an olive tree in someone’s garden. Stromboli is quite unique.  After a very rolly night at anchor we leave before dawn to motor around to the active side of the volcano. There is a red halo above the mountain, where the glow of the lava illuminates the low clouds shrouding the summit. Rounding the point, the crimson trail of magma is still visible in the half-light of dawn.  The green scrub of the hillside ends and a huge slide of black ash covers the entire northern slope, where the rivers of lava flow down into the sea.  As day breaks and we motor north towards the Italian mainland, a huge white cumulus cloud heaps up over Stromboli, ejecting ash high into the atmosphere and we wonder what the volcano has in store today.

Post script: a few minutes after we took these pictures a second abundant lava flow began and quickly covered the entire plateau then descended the Sciara in several branches, reaching the sea on  several fronts. My shaky video below captures the start of this lava flow which has been reported as many times larger than any observed in recent years. This accounts for the huge cloud over Stromboli in the picture above which was taken about an hour later as we sailed North towards Salerno.


  1. Fancy restaurants,live music,fashion shows,not to mention Cheryl Cole......sounds like you are roughing it! Btw does Juno have an iron? In your stunning photos,Caroline always looks as though she has just stepped off the catwalk! Joking apart,it must be awesome to sail around an extremely active volcano.....excellent,evocative descriptions,as ever....much love Katie and Jack with their feet firmly on the ground in Cornwall xoxox

  2. Brilliant photos too... Just love reading every update!
    xx - Brett & Dee

  3. Is Fatty tackle out on that towel on the fore deck? Nothing wrong with that.