Feel Frees Siracusan Story


By Tom Morkin

Some time ago while back in Turkey, Liz and planned our spring sailing agenda, which would take us through western Turkey, to Greece (the Aegean Islands, the northeast Peloponnesus, the Corinth Canal, Gulf of Corinth, Gulf of Patras, and the islands of the Ionian Sea.), then on to the east coast of the boot of Italy and south to Sicily and then to Malta.

We would’ve loved to leave the boat on the hard on one of the stunning Ionian Islands of western Greece, but tax laws made that out of the question.

The one wrinkle in this plan was that we needed to be in Malta by mid May so we could haul the boat and prepare for summer storage. To have the two months we needed to see all we wanted to see along the way, a mid-March departure from Turkey was called for. As we mentioned in one of our previous BoatUS logs, this was a month and a half earlier than the veteran Med cruisers advised sailing in the Med. We would soon find out why.

Normally we don’t push the seasons, but we made an exception in this case because we had summer jobs starting June 1st in Canada and wanted to leave the boat in a boatyard in Malta until we returned to resume cruising in October

Why choose Malta to store the boat, and not Greece or Italy? Actually we would’ve loved to leave the boat on the hard on one of the Ionian Islands of western Greece. However, thanks to the inane tax rules for non-European-Union boats left for more than 90 days, that option was off the table. For example, if our 51-foot boat was in Greece for six months, the tax bill alone would be between 1,000 and 1,500 Euros ($1500-$2200 US). I can’t be too precise because the actual rate depends on the whims of different tax collectors. Italy was ruled out because of the high cost of boat storage fees in the summer. Strangely, if we wanted to store the boat in Italy in the winter the prices would be half what they are in the summer.

The dramatic entrance to Syracuse, Sicily, with castle and old town Ortigia

We chose Malta because the cost is reasonable and the yard came well recommended. Furthermore, it’s only about 200 miles to Tunisia and about 300 miles to Sardinia. So when we return to the boat we have attractive options for the winter. So it was off to Malta for us.

By the end of April we’d gone as far as Lefkas Island in the Ionian Sea, and from there we were to set off for Corfu; then we’d have only a 55-mile day hop across the Ionian Sea to the boot of Italy. Once in Italy, five or six day hops down the coast would bring us to the famed ancient harbor of Siracusa, on Sicily’s east coast, and Malta lay only 80 miles south-southwest, which could be done in two hops. This program sounded good as we could avoid sailing over night. Then we bumped into Sarah and Harry, a British couple who have plenty of experience sailing in the Med. It only took 15 minutes in their company before we saw the benefits of biting the bullet and sailing direct from Cephalonia in Greece, straight to Siracusa, a trip of 255 miles, rather than going the longer day-hopping route.

Sarah and Harry told us that the harbors along the southeast side of Italy are few, small, and shallow. The acceptable marinas are expensive, even by Med standards, and the commercial harbors although safe are grungy and often rat-infested. Yikes! Once on the Italian side of the Ionian, shipping and fishing traffic dramatically increase and, finally, the weather tends to be better on the Greek side. No thanks to all of the above.

We were taken by surprise at the size and scale of the old city on the island of Ortigia, which provides a natural and very large sheltered bay

It was still o’dark thirty, about 4 a.m., when we reached the entrance to the Grand Harbor of the famed Siracusa (Syracuse), Sicily, after our two-day and 255-mile passage from Cephalonia (see Liz’s last log for the story). The decision to heave to, and wait until dawn to make landfall was partially driven by our natural reluctance to enter unknown ports in the dark, as well as our desire to approach the much-acclaimed historic port at sunrise. It was worth the wait to see the red/orange light of the sunrise illuminate the massive walls of the 800-year-old fort that’s guarded the entrance of the harbor since the time of Archimedes.

Although we’d seen our share of old buildings in Turkey, notably Istanbul, we were taken off guard by the size and scale of the old city on the island of Ortigia, which is serendipitously located to provide a natural and very large sheltered bay. Grand Harbor was and is truly well named. Although tempted to anchor and tie stern-to the city quay where we’d be ideally situated to enjoy the unique ambiance of every day Siracusan life, we opted for the peace and quiet of the nearby anchorage.

Later that day we set of on a walking tour of our first Italian city. It was also our first encounter with dinghy theft since 2001 when we lost a dinghy and outboard to thieves in the Marshall Islands of the Pacific. We’d been ashore long enough to briefly walk around Ortigia, the old town, and have a gelato, leaving the dink unlocked on the town quay. Since leaving Australia in 2004, we hadn’t locked our dinghy even in urban areas. That’s a total of 15 countries of leaving our dink unlocked! The dinghy was two hours on the quay in Siracusa, Italy, and it was missing upon our return. Welcome back to the western world!

The Siracusan market contains an amazing array of foods at the best prices we’ve seen in the Med so far.

That sickening feeling that goes to the pit of the stomach assaulted us immediately. All the warm and fuzzy feelings for Italy and Italians vanished instantly. I immediately hated Italy and all things Italian – except of course for my wife!

Our sailboat lay at anchor a mile away. We hadn’t even checked into the damned country, couldn’t speak the language, couldn’t find a police station. All of these thoughts I tried to suppress as I started running along the waterfront hoping whoever took the dinghy hadn’t gotten too far away.

It’s times like this when you realize just how vulnerable you are when you pack most of your belongings into a boat and sail it a long way from what was your home. There are so many events that can turn a wonderfully satisfying experience to a horribly nightmarish one in a heartbeat. A number of easily identifiable triggers for these horror stories exist., The main culprits that come to mind are (in no particular order) crime, weather, accidents, maintenance (or rather lack of good maintenance), health, negligence, and bad luck. Any-long term sailor can certainly regale you with numerous horror stories. It comes, unfortunately, with the territory.

The fishermen bring their fresh catch to
the open market everyday
Blood oranges. The produce was plentiful and luscious at the markets in town.

Below is our top 10 list of lousy things that have befallen us over the last 23 years (with both Feel Free, our present boat, and our previous boat Hoki Mai

1) Corroded through-hull that almost sunk Feel Free in Mexico (1999) 2) Going aground on a weather shore in Queensland, Australia (Hoki Mai, 1988) 3) Losing the use of engine and transmission when cruising back of beyond in the South Pacific (Hoki Mai,1986) 4) Losing the use of my left arm for six weeks after a bicycle accident (in Australia, 2002) 5) Being 150 miles northeast of Sydney Australia in the Tasman Sea listening to the weather forecaster tell us a major storm is imminent and we have to heave to for 36 hours as we get pummeled by 65 knots of wind. (Hoki Mai,1987) 6) Punching a hole in our steel boat, below the waterline while chipping away a bit of rust. (Hoki Mai, 1991) Mercifully, we were in a boat yard. 7) Not getting a couple of teaching jobs in Guam, which our banker said we desperately needed, and setting sail for Japan with not much more than “a wing and a prayer.” (Hoki Mai, 1989) 8) Autopilot and wind vane failures one week before our landfall in the Marquesas, South Pacific. (Hoki Mai,1986) 9) Liz collapsing a lung in Japan. (Hoki Mai, 1992) (At least she had good medical care.) 10) Days after sandblasting and painting the bottom of Hoki Mai in Fiji (1987), we dove underwater to see all the paint falling from the hull in sheets. The painter had mixed the epoxy 4:1 when the directions called for a 2:1 ratio. A month later, the bottom had no paint but plenty of barnacles.

While in Australia, Tom had a bicycle accident that put him out of commission for six weeks

Tom surveys the bottom of Hoki Mai (Fiji, 1987). Days later, the paint fell off in sheets from the hull; it had been incorrectly mixed.

As I review this list, it’s curious that most of the bad things that have happened to us occurred in our earlier sailing days. I’d like to think we’re getting older and wiser, but what’s probably closer to the truth is that equipment and technology and generally a more cautious approach to cruising, coupled with good luck, have helped keep the nightmares at bay.

Like so many sad tales, our lost dinghy event was triggered by a combination of events and, in this case, crime and negligence. Although we can’t stop crime we could’ve locked the dinghy! Fortunately, our Siracusan nightmare was short lived. Within 15 minutes, we found our beloved 9-foot inflatable with the 8-hp motor only 300 meters from where we left her. There were clear signs it had been tampered with, but there was no damage. Malicious act of vandalism? I doubt it. Attempted theft? Maybe. Mischievous kids playing downtown? Probably. Again, the heart resumed its normal rhythm and the breathing slowed -- the nightmare ended. Italy ‘aint so bad after all.

Not surprisingly, the architecture, art, and history of Siracusa bring throngs of tourists every year, regardless of the season.

In fact, we loved our 10 days in Siracusa. Without question, the architecture, art and history bring throngs of tourists (Italian and otherwise) to Siracusa, but being the slave to my stomach that I am, it was the downtown daily market that consumed a lot of our time. Although not as big as the markets we saw in Turkey, the Siracusan market contained a greater variety of foods at the best prices we’ve seen in the Med.

Our lunch after our first trip to the market was more a food orgy than a lunch. Without going into detail, let’s just say we put a dent in the squid stocks around Italy, and let’s hope the Italians have a bumper crop of vegetables to replace what we consumed. As for the wine needed to wash it all down, well, we don’t need to talk about that either.

Lunch after we walked the sights, and took our first trip to the market was colorful and delicious.