Call For a Tow

And Then We Were In Malta


By Liz Tosoni

Where the heck is Malta anyway? Malta is one of those places that nearly everyone has heard of, but few actually know where it is or exactly what it is. That was certainly the case for me until Liz and I started planning our travels west from Turkey. We wanted to find a summer home for Feel Free while we went back to Canada to restock the cruising kitty. After investigating and rejecting possibilities in Greece and Italy, some marina buddies in Turkey suggested Malta. They had good things to say about the yard and Malta itself. That started the ball rolling. We began researching Malta.

The architectural details everywhere in Malta are of staggering beauty.

Here are some amazing statistics we gathered, from many different sources, about our next landfall:
–The Maltese are the happiest people in the world
–Malta is the second best place in the world to retire
–Malta has the best climate in the world
–Malta ranks 10th in the world for its medical standards.
–Malta’s main city (Valletta, built in 1610) is a UNESCO World Heritage city with 320 monuments within an area of 55 hectares.
–Malta has the lowest crime rate in Europe.
–No other country in the world matches Malta for the concentration of so much history (Phoenicians, Ottomans, Romans, Aragonese, Knights of St. John, French, British).
–Malta’s prehistoric temples are the oldest free-standing buildings in the world.
–Malta is an independent country, and as of 2004 it is a fully fledged member of the European Union.
–Malta is comprised of two main islands, Valetta and Gozo, along with a handful of tiny islands. Valetta, the largest, accounts for most of the country’s commerce and population -- about 400,000.
–Thanks to its central position in the Mediterranean and its superb harbor, it has occupied a place in history way out of proportion to its size. Malta received independence from Britain in 1964 and was used as a major shipping center and the infrastructure and expertise remain.
–Malta is one place in the Med where you can source just about any boat part or service imaginable.
–Best of all, almost everyone speaks English.

Malta is located strategically in the middle of the Med.

Malta sits between Southern Italy and North Africa – Tunisia, actually. It’s about 55 miles south of the bottom of Sicily and about 150 miles north of Tunisia. It’s about half way between Gibraltar and Israel.

No doubt, its central location in the Med along with its proximity to Italy, Greece, Turkey, and North Africa went a long way toward securing it as an important place in European history. After finding out as much as we could about the place, we liked what we learned, and decided it would be Feel Free’s summer home.

Our point of departure for Malta was Siracusa in southeastern Sicily, where we’d just spent a superbly sybaritic 10 days of overeating the fine foods of southern Italy and indulging in the dangerously delicious and  inexpensive vino roso.

Malta Harbor is lined with massive buildings, most over 500 years old.

Our haulout date was a week away but the weather forecast was for 30 knots of southwest wind beginning in the afternoon of the next day. The boatyard manager in Malta told us we’d have to wait two weeks to get hauled if we missed our appointment. So the question was – leave immediately in good weather and hope to be in port before the wind picks up, or wait and hope the system goes through soon enough to allow us to go after the weather has passed through.

Once upon a time, cruisers didn’t have five internet sites from which they could download the latest and greatest weather predictions. Without question, it is a development that has vastly improved the lives of cruisers, right up there with GPS, wind vanes, roller furlers and wasabi. However, one is easily mesmerized by the computer displays with those wondrous wind-speed arrows, wave-height measurements, color-bar precipitation indicators, satellite images, and so on and so on, and can be convinced that any display so polished surely can’t be wrong. But of course, often they are.

Evidence of Malta’s military history is seen everywhere.

It seems to me that the weather forecasting may have marginally improved over the last 20 years, yet the weather forecast presentations have dramatically improved. This marvelous repackaging of the weather information should be seen for what it is; weather forecasts are never written in stone and seldom 100-percent accurate. As one crusty ‘ole salt once said about meteorologists, “When their lips are movin’, they’re lyin’.” A tad harsh but a touch of skepticism is no doubt a good thing.

Back to the dilemma at hand -- to go before the weather system or after the system passes. According to computer models, we should be in port 12 hours before the winds howl, but personal experience predicting the timing of these weather disturbances is even more difficult than the wind speeds. So, we ask ourselves, “Do we feel lucky today?”

Yeah, sort of. Besides, it’s lovely out now, and it’s always easier to leave port on a sunny day. More significantly, what happens if the system stalls and the system lingers? We’d still be in harbor, frustrated, bored, and generally being anxious having to leave in truly lousy conditions. “The hell with it,” I said to Liz. “Let’s go!”

Malta is like an architectural theme park, filled with marvelously executed buildings and sculptures hewn of stone.

Within 15 minutes of weighing anchor we had a lovely 10 knots of northwesterly wind off the beam. As is so often the case when cruising, the wind was perfect if you were out for a day sail in the bay or you had only a short hop to make, but we had 88 miles to go with strong winds, 30 knots plus called for in the extended long-range forecast, so even with diesel prices north of $7 per US gallon, we opted to turn on the “Japanese breeze,” our trusty 70-horse Japanese-made Isuzu engine.

One hour later, the wind filled enough to give us 5 to 6 knots with sail alone, so off went the engine for the duration of the trip. The sky remained clear except for a band of cirrus clouds to the west that portended a change in conditions sometime soon, but all afternoon and through the evening we enjoyed idyllic sailing – a beam reach with a following slight sea.

Tom in the process of folding the mainsail for four months of storage

We especially savored the occasion because we knew this would be our last sail for four or five months. Had we not made the mistake of turning on the VHF radio at 10 p.m. to hear about the gale warning, we would’ve enjoyed our last eight hours of the trip even more. But we did and there it was.

Sure enough the wind increased to 20 and then 25 knots, but the sky still looked OK and we were in the 7-8-knot mode, so even though the gale-force winds were coming early, we thought we’d miss the brunt of them. Nonetheless, our contentment level dropped at about the same rate as our anxiety level rose. Our increased speed brought us to the entrance of Valetta harbor one and a half hours before dawn. The now very-lumpy seas, strong onshore winds, and unfamiliarity with this large port made the call to heave-to with double reefed main an easy one.

As it turned out, another sailboat chose to heave-to with us a mile from the harbor. At the time, we didn’t realize they were heaving-to because they were moving so much faster than we were. At the time, we thought they were heavily reefed and elected to keep sailing into the harbor in the dark.

The public transportation is frequent and efficient, and roads beautiful.

 “Well, they’re certainly braver than we are,” I thought. Then all of a sudden, they executed a 180 and were bashing back out to sea. We thought it strange behavior until we met the crew one day later. They reported that they too were heaving-to, but with their small fin keel, spade rudder, and light displacement, they couldn’t slow the boat down enough and had to fire up the engine and pound their way back out to sea.

There’s a lot to be said for a boat that can heave-to comfortably without moving too much through the water. On the subject of heaving-to, I strongly advise people who haven’t heaved-to in their boat to practice in windy conditions and experiment with different sail configurations noting how their boat behaves.

After our experiences heaving-to with our first boat of 14 years (Hoki Mai), a heavy-displacement steel ketch with a full keel and attached rudder, we thought heaving-to in any boat would be a straightforward case. Not so.

Our present boat, Feel Free, has less wetted surface, fin keel and skeg, and a bigger mast. Attempts to heave-to with reefed main, partially rolled up jib, and rudder turned upwind (the method used with Hoki Mai) results in Feel Free moving forward and eventually coming about on her own – a bad situation. Heaving-to aboard Feel Free means single- or double-reefed main (no jib at all) and rudder turned upwind. This results in the boat lying about 70 degrees off the wind and the boat falling off to leeward with very little forward motion.

We were amazed by the incredible display of churches and fortresses as we arrived in Malta at dawn.

It was a cold grey dawn approach into a harbor that has to be seen to be believed. Massive walled fortresses sit high on the promontories that extend from the two bays that make up Malta’s natural harbors -- Valetta and the smaller adjoining harbor, Msida. It really is like one giant theme park architecturally, very small and very concentrated and built up, but there are no high rises and the buildings are all over 500 years old, made of weathered stone, huge blocks of limestone, and there are splendid fortresses, palaces and churches, everywhere you look.

Why so many forts and churches for such a small island? Unlike Turkey, Greece, and Italy where the ruins of wondrous architecture of ancient civilizations remain, in Malta, the remains of ancient civilizations are still very much intact and in use.

It was only an hour or so after we were well secured in the Msida Marina when the winds really intensified. For the next week the winds raged from the northwest and north and it was rainy and cold as we prepared Feel Free for haulout. Surely this couldn’t be the Malta that boasts one of the finest climates in the world?

The old buildings are everywhere, even right along the waterfront – a normal part of everyday life on Malta.

All week we heard that old refrain, “The weather is very unusual for this time of year.” Finally, the skies did clear, and we experienced the famous fine weather in the yard before we headed back to Canada for a work stint for the summer. And we got a glimpse of the spectacular island where Feel Free would make her home, without us, while Liz and I head back to Canada for a bit to earn some money, reconnect with our families, and plan our next chapter. Log on in two weeks, and we’ll let you know how it’s all going!

Feel Free is lifted for dry storage at Manoel Island Yacht Yard, so we can head back to Canada for our summer job.