The Best of Times, The Worst of Times


By Liz Tosoni

Siracusa, Sicily
37 03.7 N, 15 16.9 E

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...” Those famous words of Charles Dickens’ aptly apply to our passage from our last Greek isle, Cephalonia, to Siracusa (Syracuse) Italy.

The afternoon before departure, we walked to the old lighthouse of Fiskardho Cephalonia.

The course was 255 miles across the Ionian Sea and the forecast was perfect really for the 265-mile voyage -- northerlies or north-westerlies of Beaufort Force 4 or 5, and sometimes 6 (15- 25 knots), and then lightening up closer to the Italian coast. The winds would be on the beam or aft of the beam and that sounded simply ideal for our first overnight sailing trip in over a year.

We talked about breaking it up into two parts -- the first leg to the “boot” of Italy, and the second leg from there to Siracusa, about half way down the east coast of Sicily -- but when we learned that the harbors on the boot can be shallow and questionable and that the stretch of water between there and Sicily can be tricky, we changed the plan. With the predicted winds, we could easily do it in two days.

Since leaving Turkey, we’d done day hops only throughout Greece and hadn’t given much thought to the old ditch kit or “abandon ship” kit, so while in Cephalonia we spent some time re-examining the contents, adding to and updating them.

Feel Free was made ship-shape with everything stowed in proper compartments and anything that could rattle or roll was put neatly away. A reef was put in the main. Rigging was checked. We find that it’s always a good idea to have food prepared ahead of time for a passage, so the evening before, I made a hearty vegetable stew. We were ready.

Preparing for passagemaking meant taking out the ditch kit, after its long hibernation, and checking its contents.

It’s often with mixed feelings that we leave one country for the next, especially when we haven’t given the country justice -- we certainly felt that we could have explored Greece for many more months. But also, departing fills us with excited anticipation. New travel guide and pilot books are put in the “library” ready for easy access, charts are brought out, old ones put away

Our next Mediterranean country, Italy, was of particular import for me. My dear (departed) Dad was born Antonio Tosoni in a small northern Italian village, Castel Nuovo, in 1920. (My mom is of French and Scottish heritage.) With his parents, Sante and Eliza, my father emigrated to Canada via New York in 1929 and like so many Italian immigrants, he was of very humble beginnings. But, he went on to achieve a doctorate in biochemistry, and together with Dr. Peter Maloney discovered a method to crystallize penicillin, a significant accomplishment in antibiotic therapy, and something our family is very proud of. Anyway, I’m half Italian, and to arrive by sailboat to the land of my ancestors had always been a dream. Now it was becoming a reality.

New travel guide and pilot books are put in the “library” ready for easy access when we set out for a new landfall.

The afternoon before departure, we came across more ancient ruins on our last stroll in Greece, near the old lighthouse of Fiskardho Cephalonia. That discovery along with a fine evening, was a fitting finish to our short stay in Greece.

Next morning before dawn and in the dark, we headed out of the harbor with the engine purring. By 0700 it was blowing 20 knots out of the northwest, seas were lumpy and uncomfortable, but with a reefed main, staysail and small jib, we moved along briskly at 7-8 knots. As the day progressed, though, conditions got rambunctious and rough, winds increased and we had to put another reef in the main.

Feel Free was well heeled over. The motion down below was jerky, even violent at times. This wasn’t in the brochure! We had expected calm seas and a nice and easy breeze. As is often the case on the first day of a passage when conditions are boisterous, neither Tom nor I felt like eating or drinking. Mal de mer set in. We had to force ourselves to drink water and take in some nourishment -- dry crackers, broth. We couldn’t manage the stew at all. Using the stove was a major feat.

Liz’s father Antonio Tosoni, was born in 1920 in a small, humble northern Italian village. Later, in Canada he achieved a doctorate in biochemistry and with a colleague discovered a method to crystallize penicillin.

To make matters worse, we were having autopilot problems. The main autopilot, “Benny” a Cetec Benmar 210 Course Keeper, was not holding the course well at all. This was unusual. Benny has almost always been our number 1 pilot, a fantastic crew member. Normally, a quick squirt to the contact points with contact cleaner fixes things (we joke about his “addiction”) but not today.

The backup, “Cappy”, our cockpit wheel driven CPT autopilot, was also misbehaving. He just couldn’t keep up with the lively conditions. It’s times like these when you really wonder why you go to sea at all. It all seems so unnatural, so miserable, and you want to scream “Get me off this boat right now! I’m not meant for this life.” It had been a very long time since I’d felt that way -- I believe the last time was en route from Sri Lanka to the Maldive Islands over a year ago.

Liz’s mother (of French and Scottish heritage), and Liz, pictured in 2006. “We’re lucky that she’s always been incredibly supportive of our alternative lifestyle,” says Liz.

I spent most of the time down below, lying supine on my bunk just trying to be still and comfortable. Because of the motion and angle of heel, there was only one really comfy spot in the cockpit, that being the one on the leeward side, and Tom wanted to be there so he could monitor autopilots, weather and things in general. That was fine with me. I was in my cocoon down below and every hour or so I’d head up into the cockpit to check on Tom and the world outside.

"Is everything OK Tom?” I asked intermittently.

“Yep, we’re moving along nicely,” he always replied reassuringly.

We spent our days ashore in Greece walking and exploring the ruins.

I’d look at the GPS and C-Map to see where we were, make an entry into the log book, then take over the helm while Tom took a break, went below to check things and quickly returned to his station in the cockpit. He preferred to be there while I preferred to be down below, a very convenient situation.

By 2230, winds had abated to 25 knots and seas along with them. Miraculously, “Cappy” was steering flawlessly. The jib was furled, we began a two-hour on, two-hour off watch system and all went smoothly for the rest of the cold night, as Feel Free bowled along at 5 to 6 knots.

On the morning of Day 2 winds were down to a very civilized 15 knots, still out of the northwest, so we shook out the reefs and settled in for a relaxing time. (Hadn’t we already learned our lesson about never letting your guard down in the Med?) Shortly after noon, Tom commented “That’s an interesting looking sky.”

We came across yet some more ancient ruins on our last stroll in Greece, near the old lighthouse of Fiskardho Cephalonia.

Then, at 1230, WHACK, a vicious squall arrived, putting Feel Free, under full sail, on her ear and the boat rounded up uncontrollably, causing the autopilot to experience a severe seizure. Even after disconnecting the autopilot, given the strong winds and resultant weather helm, the boat remained on her ear, unresponsive to the helm, a very scary feeling for this little chicken at the helm. Major sail reduction was required, and fast!! With Herculean effort, we managed to roll the furling jib in and then Tom raced to the mast shouting "two reefs!"

That done, and with the boat balanced once again, we had steerage back and Cappy returned to his job, too. With only a staysail and a double-reefed main our speed over the ground was 7 knots, we had 30 knot winds and not surprisingly, seas were up again as well.

There was only one really comfy spot in the cockpit during the passage, the one on the leeward side. Liz preferred to stay down below.

By 1400, skies were clearing, winds were dying and we had big fat lousy seas so “Yosh” (our 70-horse Isuzu engine) was put into action. The sun started to peak out. At around 1800, skies darkened once again, huge bands of black and white were clearly delineated above the horizon.

Then came the booming thunderstorm: thunder, lightning, torrential rain, followed by hail. Particularly disconcerting for Tom was the fact that a) the lightening was coming from every point of the compass, and b) the time interval between lightning and thunder, which initially was 9 seconds, was decreasing to 7 sec., 6 sec. and finally, 2 sec.

Hmm… maybe it’s time to start disconnecting electronics? He took this time to remind me that although our electronics were possibly in peril, we were not, being surrounded by the shrouds and stays. He harkened back to grade-12 physics and said something about a Faraday Cage,“A sailboat is a pretty safe place to be.” I hoped Tom was right. It was pretty hard to believe that though when you’re in the midst of the loud pyrotechnics.

Late in the afternoon of the second day of the passage, skies darkened once again and huge, clearly defined bands of black and white appeared above the horizon.

The storm was short lived thankfully and once it had passed, there was glorious sunshine and flat seas and by 2030, a rosy sunset, with appearances of a nice night shaping up. Just after midnight, the wind picked up from the north and sails were set as a gorgeous 15-, then 18-knot breeze filled in, stars winked. I was the lucky one to be on watch when the moon rose, appearing like a giant orange wedge floating across the sky before it transformed itself into brilliant white, lighting up our path to Sicily.

We reduced sail in order to slow down and make a dawn entry into Siracusa harbor. From a distance, we could just make out a long row of lights, glittering like gems, marking the starboard side, guiding us. A red flashing light was on the port side. Yet closer, a flashing pale green light could be seen, standing at the outer edge of the lights, by a conspicuous, 13th century castle, Castello Maniace, a spectacular sight in the early morning light.

In Siracusa, we made new friends and took in the sights

The sky was awash in an orange glow as Feel Free ghosted into Grand Harbor. Medieval buildings, a domed cathedral, the Old Town of Ortigia soon came into view. It was a thrill to drop anchor in this ancient historical Italian port – perhaps even made more so by a bit of passage pain -- and it was another great landfall for Feel Free and her crew.

The unpleasant passage behind us, we walked the streets of Siracusa.


A new place seems even more beautiful if it’s a hairy ride to get there.