Two Years Of Mediterranean Sailing: A Critique
By Tom Morkin
Years before we were anywhere close to Africa, we discussed the pros and cons of going south to the African Cape of Good Hope. We listened to sailors wax lyrically of the beauty of South Africa, the African hospitality, the wonderful safaris they took during their non-sailing interludes and the long south-Atlantic passage to the Caribbean reputed to be the most benevolent of ocean passages. Then we’d hear about the increase in crime in the urban centers, the racial strife, stories about hapless mariners who got caught out on South Africa’s east coast – or the “Wild Coast” as it’s called, when 40 knots of south wind bump into four to five knots of south-flowing Aguilles current, conditions so rough that 700-foot freighters are split in two. In fact, much of the south Indian Ocean can be rough on boats and crews. Passages tend to be long, windy, and bumpy.
It’s the age-old question for circumnavigators: How do you get around that rather large piece of real estate called Africa? You can go over it or you can go under it. Over the years Liz and I have spent countless hours agonizing over this decision.
Or, the “over the top” Option B. If going westabout from Thailand as we were, that would entail the northern Indian Ocean, Arabian Sea, Gulf of Aden, Red Sea, and the Med. On the plus side, conditions are more mellow, hopefully reaching in northeast trade winds until the Red Sea, nice stops along the way like Sri Lanka, Maldives, Oman, Aden. As for the Red Sea, it could go either way ¬– some love it while others hate it. But the real fly in the ointment is the Gulf of Aden. No matter how well prepared or how well found your yacht, it’s basically a crapshoot.
|So for Liz and me, it was a draw. We had mixed feelings about both routes. The northern route presented us with man-made dangers, while the dangers of the southern route were more weather-driven. In the end, we opted for the northern route mainly because of the attractions of the Mediterranean.|
|After years of cruising the lightly populated and pristine parts of southeast Asia and the north and south Pacific, we were ready for Mediterranean Europe and all that it entails: ancient civilizations, art, architecture, cuisine, history and multitudes of cultures short distances apart. The list could go on and on.|
However, we were also beset by concerns:
1) Europe is expensive.
2) Europe is heavily populated and anchorages crowded.
3) The customs and immigration laws and bureaucracy are a hassle.
4) The Med is polluted.
5) The Med weather is treacherous with either too much or not enough wind. In short, it’s no place for a sailboat.
Well, now that we’ve spent over two years in the Mediterranean and sailed some 2,500 miles and visited 10 countries, the verdict has been reached on each of these concerns. Allow me to address them one by one.
The Med is expensive?
Well, the short answer is yes, it is. But the long answer is that it doesn’t have to be if a number of rules are followed: Stay out of marinas in the summer months as marina prices double or triple during the summer.
|Winter rates for yachts spending the entire winter (monthly or six monthly contracts) are downright inexpensive and because the winter weather in the Med is not conducive to sailing and very few boats move around between November and May, further bargains can be had by signing winter contracts.|
Our monthly rate for our first winter in a first-class marina in Turkey for our boat was 176 Euro or about $230US. The second winter in Malta, we paid 241 Euro or $313 US per month. The summers are a different matter so we carefully planned well in advance our Mediterranean itinerary and carefully watched weather forecasts so we were able to sail from anchorage to anchorage and were fortunate not to have to find a weather sanctuary in a marina charging us $150 a night, which can easily befall the unfortunate mariner.
Some countries are less expensive than others. The expensive ones include Spain, Italy, Croatia, France, Malta, Israel, and Greek Cyprus, while the less expensive ones include Turkey, Turkish Cyprus, Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, and Greece. In general, the eastern Med is a lower-cost area to cruise than the western Med which is most fortunate as it offers much more pleasant cruising grounds, which explains why far more veteran Med cruisers make Greece and Turkey their primary cruising grounds – more islands, more anchorages, clean, clear, warm waters, a plethora of historic sites, good food, beautiful landscapes, lower prices.
Yes, fuel is very expensive unless purchased in Egypt, Libya, or Morocco. Turkey was the most expensive, where we shelled out more than $7 for a gallon of diesel. Restaurants tend to be pricey perhaps because of higher labor costs and land prices?
|Food prices in general are modestly higher than in the U.S. if purchased carefully. We found the German grocery store chain Lidl to offer the best prices. Some example prices: milk $.71/liter; bread $.53 for a baguette; a wide variety of cheeses, reasonably priced overall; chicken, about $3 per pound; beer, $.33/can; wine from as low as $.70 for a liter box of table wine to as high as you want to pay.|
Anchorages are crowded and marinas expensive?
Certainly July and August can be chock-a-block in places like the Balearic Islands of Spain, Sardinia, Corsica, the south coast of Turkey, southern Italy, Malta, and some of the Greek Islands. Marinas at this time can fill up and, as mentioned, can be outrageously expensive. This is only a two-month problem. We met countless Europeans who keep their boats in the Med but only use them either from May to June or September and October. They summer in northern Europe at home and go boating either in the spring or fall or both. We found by networking with fellow cruisers we could always find a way to beat the crowds. But don’t count on too many anchorages to yourself.
Med weather is treacherous with either too much or not enough wind?
|The Med is definitely out of the tradewind belt and much of it comes under the influence of complex weather systems that can be affected by mountains in Europe and deserts in North Africa. There are numerous named winds. The meltem in Turkey and Greece; the mistral in France, Spain, and Italy; the gregal in southern Italy and Malta were the ones that struck fear in this little chicken’s heart.|
The good news is that weather forecasting is good and available in a multitude of formats. One is seldom far from Internet access and many cruisers rely on passage weather, wind guru, accuweather, or GRIB files. In many countries, we could get weather forecasts in English on VHF radio at least a couple of times a day. From May to October on SSB (single side band) radio, the “Med Net” broadcast the weather forecast for most of the Med each day at 0545 UCT (formerly GMT). Although we sat out some big blows, we were never blindsided by the weather and caught out, and our sailing-to-motoring ratio has been pretty good. The key is to pay attention to the forecasts and be patient.
The European customs and immigration laws and bureaucracy are a hassle?
Since the establishment of the European Community (EC), customs and immigration laws, non-EC boats have to be imported and VAT paid roughly 17% of the appraised value of the boat. This is basically true but can easily be avoided. Firstly, your non-EC boat can remain 18 months in Europe without being deemed imported and VAT-payable. If you wish to stay longer than 18 months, you need to leave the EC (even for one day and return) and the clock is reset and your boat has another 18 months. (The clock stops when your boat is in dry storage too.) This can be done repeatedly. Israel, Turkey, Tunisia, and Morocco are popular non-EC countries where cruisers go to reset the clock. In fact, the EC has made cruising the Med easier. Once cleared into the EC, not having to check in and out of every country until leaving the EC is a great plus to Med cruising.
The Med is polluted?
Overall we’ve found the waters to be very clean. We routinely wash our dishes in salt water unless we’re in a harbor or a very crowded anchorage and are able to swim just about every place we anchor.
|Not only is the Med clean, it is remarkably clear, largely because it has few big rivers running into it and little rain in summer to muddy the waters. We could often see the bottom when anchoring in 30 feet. Pristine it may not be, but polluted? No way.|
So, any regrets about our decision to come to the Med rather than South Africa? In a word: NO! It’s interesting that many circumnavigators that go through the Med spend more than one season, in some cases many years in the Med, whereas those that go around South Africa tend to carry on into the Atlantic without spending a second year in Africa. It appears the Med is a harder place to leave.
The increase in piracy around Somalia has meant more cruisers will undoubtedly feel more pressure to complete their world cruise via South Africa, missing the attractions of the Med. That’s a pity. Given the increased risk posed by the pirates, we would elect to go around South Africa and undoubtedly feel short-changed that we missed visiting the European and African countries that line the Mediterranean.
If that were the case, I guess we’d have to go around again and hope the pirate problem was resolved so we could go through the Med the second time around.