Passage to the Middle Sea

The rigging and foredeck of Flying Fish on passage in light air from Turkey to Malta. © Jeffrey Cardenas

A passage has a life of its own. Like a good book, there is a beginning, various plotlines, drama, and then it ends. The 680-mile passage of Flying Fish last week across the eastern Mediterranean from Turkey to Malta was no exception.

  • I felt some anxiety about my routing to Malta through Greek territorial waters. Greece and Turkey prohibit transit between their countries, and their war of words has recently escalated to saber-rattling.
  • Weather became an issue. A ferocious meltemi wind developed, unforcasted, soon after I departed from Turkey.
  • I experienced a startling “bump in the night” as Flying Fish’s keel met unseen rocks in a dark anchorage.
  • The meltemi turned into winter with freezing rain coating the deck.
  • As I continued into the Mediterranean, hundreds of merchant ships were stalled en route to Suez because a massive container ship had gone aground, closing the entire canal.
  • And in the middle of it all, I once again lost critical onboard electronics. Both the AIS and the autopilot became inoperative. I was electronically invisible to shipping traffic and, with my autopilot gone, I couldn’t even take my hands off the wheel to pee overboard.

Nobody said this was going to be easy.

The route from Turkey to Malta was an initial point of concern. Travel between ports in Turkey and Greece–COVID notwithstanding–has been shut down for months because of territorial sea disputes. Tensions are inflamed over an area of the continental shelf in the Aegean Sea believed to hold rich oil reserves. Territorial waters give the respective state(s) control over shipping. However, foreign ships usually are guaranteed “innocent passage” through those waters. Nevertheless, the Greek military continued a non-stop VHF radio broadcast, warning all vessels from Turkey not to “violate sovereign waters.” Short of heading several hundred miles south toward Egypt, transit through Greek territorial waters would be the only routing option for Flying Fish to sail west.

The passage began with a raging meltemi wind out of the Aegean. Meltemi winds form when a high-pressure system over Greece meets a low-pressure system over Turkey. North winds near gale force are often created in the chute between the two counter-rotating systems. Flying Fish struggled to make forward progress in steep, short-period seas between the islands. Temperatures plummeted as the northerly wind increased. Fortunately, there are abundant sanctuaries for protection from the meltemi among the Greek Islands. I dropped anchor to get some rest in a protected bay at sparsely inhabited Levitha Island, despite the questionable legality of doing so.

At 3 AM, I awoke to the sound of rock meeting fiberglass–never a good sound–and I realized that Flying Fish was not where I had dropped the anchor. In nearly 12,000 miles of sailing since leaving Key West, I had never, until this night, grounded the keel of Flying Fish. As the meltemi roared in the tight anchorage of Levitha, it created a vortex of wind spinning the boat around the anchor and into a rock below the surface. In my state of exhaustion hours earlier, I had made the cardinal error of situational awareness: I did not thoroughly examine my anchorage and allow adequate swing room. Awakened by this startling bump in the night, I sprung out of my berth, started the engine, winched up the anchor, and checked the bilge. There was no water ingress (external inspection would have to wait.) Flying Fish was floating. In pitch-black darkness and violent wind, I reversed my inward GPS track and motored out of the bay to deeper water. Only then I realized that I was half-naked and very, very cold.

“Being from the tropics, I like ice. I’m just not too fond of it when it comes out of the sky.”

By morning there was sleet on the deck of Flying Fish. Temperatures were above 0°C on deck, but freezing rain was falling from the sky. I was still wet from the night’s activity. Being from the tropics, I like ice. I’m just not too fond of it when it comes out of the sky. I needed to find shelter and regroup. The Greek Waters Pilot guide recommends a secure anchorage at Nísos Íos. The book says of the Manganari Bay anchorage: “The island is extremely popular with young sun-lovers. Nude bathing is tolerated here.” A caïque brings beachgoers “topless and bottomless” daily from Íos. But that wasn’t happening today.

News about the blockage of the Suez Canal was scarce over my satellite reports, but I began to see an unending line of merchant ships jamming the shipping lanes toward Port Said. Deciphering lights, radio calls, radar blips, and other electronic information can be like reading code. Why is one ship moving one way while all the others are doing something different? Much of that information transmits by AIS (Automatic Identification System) to my mapping electronics. The AIS tells me who is navigating the same water as Flying Fish, essential information for collision avoidance. Most of the ships noted on AIS were tankers (empty tankers, it turned out, heading to the Middle East for more oil). One vessel was moving much faster than the others. It was listed on AIS as a “Dredging Operator,” expertise much needed considering the current circumstances. The Suez Canal blockage was now a critical event with global economic implications.

And then–poof!–all of the AIS targets vanished from my navigation screens. Simultaneously, Flying Fish turned abruptly to windward as the autopilot disengaged. Not again! A year earlier, as I began a 3,000-mile passage across the Indian Ocean, Flying Fish experienced an identical system failure. Unable to resolve the problem, I diverted first to Sumatra and afterward to Phuket for repairs (and then came COVID and a circumnavigation interrupted… but that is a different chapter for another day.) Now, 150 miles out of Malta, the situation (it always happens at night) was frustrating but manageable. I would sail the final stretch into the historic Valletta harbor the way my forebears did, using my eyes for navigation and my hands to steer. Even at night, every cloud has a silver lining.

The historic walled city of Valletta, Malta glows in the evening light. Photograph © Jeffrey Cardenas

Please click Follow at the bottom of this page so that you don’t miss a new update, and please consider sharing this post with others who might enjoy following the voyage of Flying Fish. I welcome your comments. I will always respond to your comment when I have an Internet connection. And I will never share your personal information.

You can follow the daily progress of Flying Fish, boat speed (or lack thereof), and current weather as I sail into the Mediterranean by clicking this satellite uplink: https://forecast.predictwind.com/tracking/display/FlyingfishClick the “Legends and Blogs” box on the right side of the tracking page for en route Passage Notes. 

To see where Flying Fish has sailed since leaving Key West in 2017, click here: https://cruisersat.net/track/Flying%20Fish

Instagram: FlyingFishSail
Facebook: Jeffrey Cardenas

Text and Photography © Jeffrey Cardenas 2021

Let this be a time of grace and peace in our lives   –Fr. John Baker

15 thoughts on “Passage to the Middle Sea

  1. Jeffrey, once again your skills of seamanship pulled you through. I was on then edge of my seat while reading your most recent passage experiences. I’m elated to know you are safe and hope Flying Fish Hull is ok as well. Thank you for sharing your story with incredible writing.
    Best to you and keep safe.
    Byron

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Byron, It is not false modesty to say that it was luck rather than seamanship that got me through the passage, at least regarding the “bump in the night.” It could have been so much worse than just a startling experience.
      Thank you for following the voyage, and I appreciate your good wishes.

      Like

  2. Wow Jeff! That had to be terrifying! And ah, the silver lining! What a beautiful photo ! What exceptional writing Jeff! So vivid! Glad you are safe and sound.
    Leanne 🥰

    Liked by 1 person

    • I realize that the phrase “silver lining” has become a cliche but it so accurately describes the good part of bad things of everyday life. There is always something positive if we take the time to look for it.
      Thank you for your compliments, Leanne. The writing and photography hard-wires the memories.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. There just seems no end to the excitement in your life. Keeping you in thought and prayer as you face each new adventure. Hoping you find warmer weather, calmer waters and some good news on the electronic issues.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think that all of the excitement onboard Flying Fish is going to make me more appreciative of life on land (when I finally get there.) Certainly, I will be more grateful for the blessings of home.
      Thanks for your thoughts.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. There is bad luck, and there is good seamanship. Bad luck is getting on that rock. Good seamanship was how you got out of there. And then there is great writing. Well done.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Jeff Your writings never fail to amaze me.Your latest will certainly become a chapter in your future novel.THE ADVENTURES OF JC..Had Bob and Alvie for dinner the other nite.MARYLOU and I had wonderful conversation relating to both their as well as your adventures.Had a nice chat with Susan over Easter weekend while she was visiting here.Be safe and healthy awaiting your nx adventure.Keep the wind at your back.God Bless Phil Roche

    Liked by 2 people

    • How about: The (Mis)Adventures of JC…
      I understand the dark side of selective memory. Forgetting about the difficult times can be as great a loss as forgetting about the good times. These essays (shortcomings included) help me to keep it in perspective. Thank you for following along, Phil.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Man well done! I personally know how tough the Flying Fish’s hull is…..(for that matter all IP sailboats) I am betting just a good ding maybe a gouge when you inspect it! As always your skills as a sailor saved the day! Awesome stuff man!

    Liked by 1 person

    • There is a lot of your sweat in the hull of Flying Fish, Jeff Mack. I thank you for that, and for these generous words. The inspection dive is coming soon. I’m just waiting for the water temps to get out of the 50s [smile].

      Like

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