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Sicily – Winter Quarters

November 18, 2015

Here we are for winter in Licata, Sicily – arriving on 21st October. A little early really but apart from possibly heading another 30 miles further east, we weren’t going anywhere else. Our original plans to head back to Tunisia for winter had been scuppered by the issues there. The Foreign Office guidelines say don’t go, and with that in mind our yacht (and medical) insurance probably would be withdrawn. It was a decision taken with regret, especially with the news of the past couple of days where it seems you take your chances wherever you go.

Island off Sardinia

Island off Sardinia

We enjoyed another few days in Carloforte, Sardinia. While I wrote up and sent out the last episode of our travels, Brian lifted, washed, dried and then packed away the dinghy for our long trip back to Sicily. The weather kept changing but we had a good window of opportunity on Tuesday 6th October. Provisions were brought on board, we paid up for our extra days in the marina, got a go-ahead from Marsala that they had a space for us and had our last beers at our favourite café Geronomo and Louise.
Alixora eased out of Carloforte harbour at 10am on Tuesday and we motored out of the shallows as there was little wind, avoiding the hundreds of fishing buoys that litter the area. We put up the sails once we got round the south east corner of Sardinia but there wasn’t enough wind to turn the engine off until about 7pm that evening – when we had reefed the mainsail for night sailing. There was a big swell off the south of Sardinia which followed us much of the way to Sicily – making life a tad uncomfortable. It is disconcerting when you see a wall of water coming up behind you blocking out the view from the back of the boat.

Marsala breakwaters and old jetties for the wine warehouses south of the harbour

Marsala breakwaters and old jetties for the wine warehouses south of the harbour

The wind kept behind us and was sufficient to push us along without any foresail at a good speed. This was a bit unfortunate as we had counted on not going very fast so that we would not arrive at Marsala in the dark. However as we approached the Egadi islands almost two days after setting out, the wind abated and we slowed down sufficiently to arrive in daylight. We hadn’t seen much on the way apart from the ubiquitous shearwaters. A couple of dolphins, a small bird and possibly a buzzard returning to North Africa for the winter. A couple of times we had to take avoiding action – once for a Tunisian cargo ship who gaily said he had seen us but didn’t seem to be doing anything about it, and close to Sicily a small yacht that just didn’t seem to have seen us at all. And best of all, we had managed to sail almost the whole way – not needing the engine at all for about 36 hours – amazing.

Marsala Winery and palace - derelict

Marsala Winery and palace – derelict

So on Thursday morning we tied up, I had a shower, checked in, went to the supermarket for milk and bread while Brian caught up on sleep, then I slept most of the afternoon. We soon rediscovered Marsala (having been there in May). However the next couple of days we just vegged out, recovering from 4 hour watches over the previous two days. It became quite windy. A few other yachts arrived looking a bit battered, one called Northern Child. We found out that they had sailed all the way from St Tropez, with only one 5 hour layover somewhere in Corsica, and had to be in Malta that Sunday as some of the crew had flights booked. The boat was then to be prepared for the Rolex Middlesea race that started the following Saturday. The weather didn’t look good at all.

Restored winery and palace, Marsala

Restored winery and palace, Marsala

Early Saturday morning (3.30am) a massive thunderstorm broke over us, 40 knot winds, torrential horizontal rain and amazing thunder and lightning. Northern Child took off, as did a couple of other yachts, but the wind, having died down a bit, returned and blew hard all day and night, only quietening down on Sunday. I felt sorry for the crew on Northern Child.
I walked south along the seafront on Sunday, past yet more old wine warehouses – some nicely maintained and others either derelict or being restored. We managed to head south to Mazara del Vallo on Monday 12th October. It was only 14 miles but the residual swell and contrary wind meant it took 4 hours and was quite unpleasant. A big Guardia di Finanza (customs) launch came close and peered at us through binoculars. I waved cheerily, got a wave back and they carried on. We tied up at the Adina pontoon as before and were welcomed back – the marinero said he recognised us.

Looking up the river, Mazara

Looking up the river, Mazara

We found our favourite bar that evening, up by the station, and enjoyed a refreshing beer while watching the teenagers lounging around outside the local game shop.
We washed the salt off the boat yet again the next day. A sirocco wind (south) started blowing and didn’t relent for several days – blowing so hard one day that the waves were breaking over the breakwater that we had to traverse to get into town. And of course the boat got covered in salt spray again.

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We spent a while finding supermarkets – the one near the marina had shut down and it was quite a hike to the others that we found. There was more torrential rain, thunder and lightning later that week, along with the wind. However we managed to get out and about for the few days we were there – I like Mazarra a lot. By Friday 16th it was time to move on yet again, and we headed to Sciacca (pronounced Shaka), venturing into unknown territory. We had been corresponding with our friends on Sailaway who had ended up in Ragusa. We were undecided whether to go to Ragusa or to Licata – both marinas have winter liveaboard communities but each has its pros and cons. Kevin and Ann were going back to the UK on 26th October so we wanted to see them before they left.

More tiling, Mazara - a story of Arabic conquest

More tiling, Mazara – a story of Arabic conquest

The weather had taken a turn for the better, and the wind (but not enough) was behind us for the 6 hour trip. There was still a bit of swell but not bad. It was time to get out the shorts and T shirts again.

We passed across the big bay with the huge Greek temples of Selinunte. We could just see them in the distance – one each side of a river.

Faint view of Greek temples near Agrigento

Faint view of Greek temples

The recommendations from Cruising Association members were to go to the Lega Navale pontoon which we did (after phoning them to book a place). We tied up to the hammerhead (cross bit at the end of the main pontoon) and put out our side ropes as there was quite a surge in the harbour. We booked in and got electronic cards to get in and out of the pontoons and marina – and a key for the disabled toilet which puzzled me as the main toilets and showers were open. But when I looked in the disabled facility there was a washing machine there – with free use! Wow, what an opportunity which I made full use of.

Oh those steps!

Oh those steps!

Not only that but the marina had its own bar with very reasonably priced beer and wine, and the supermarket was about 5 minutes’ walk away. However, the main old town was up, up, up! 270 steps to get to the first street. Phew – especially as it was now getting hot again. The town was lovely though, old palaces (restored and derelict) and big squares, old defensive gates and the remains of a considerable town wall. We wandered around most of an afternoon, taking in the sights, as we were quite likely not to want to climb those steps again in a hurry.
Sciacca is the centre of Majolica ware (bright coloured pottery) production and many shops were displaying the gaudy items. The marina had loads of bright tiled pictures of the various events from history or myth. The town was a major centre for wheat export in Roman times – underground bunkers which we didn’t see were used. Also it was a health centre with thermal baths which still operate. Now you know….


Despite the daytime temperatures, the evenings and nights were getting quite cool. The transition from a thin blanket to our winter duvet was undertaken with much regret as getting the duvet cover on in the confined space of our cabin and saloon is not simple.
The Rolex Middlesea race had started that Saturday and we watched the progress (they have a website that shows the track and position of all the contestants) with great interest. Most of the yachts kept getting stuck in pockets of complete calm. Once off Syracuse, again around the Aeolian islands and Palermo, then again around Lampedusa. One multi-hull yacht managed to wizz around in two days (600 miles) but most of the others took about 5 days – with a good storm to finish off. Our friends on Northern Child were among the laggards we fear.

Rolex Middlesea Race - 2nd day afternoon - some wind now!

Rolex Middlesea Race – 2nd day afternoon – some wind now!

The wind stayed resolutely from the east, so we stayed for 5 nights, but finally the forecast was a bit better. It would be a long trip to the next port of Licata and unfortunately Brian was up some of the night being sick – what from we don’t know as we both ate the same dinner and I was unaffected. The alarm went off at 6 and we prepped the boat – and then sat wondering whether to go or not. Finally we decided to go for it and set off into what we were hoping would change to a more reasonable wind. The mainsail was still reefed, and after an hour or two heading into the wind, it backed a few degrees and we tore along close hauled (which means the boat is tilted over quite a lot.). After an hour or two at 7 knots – not bad for the end of the season when we will have gathered a fair amount of wildlife on the bottom – the wind decided to change again and we were battering into it at 3-4 knots again. Oh dear, but then it veered the other way and we raced along again for a while.
We wondered at the strange patches where the water colour changed from deep blue to pale turquoise with a very clean definition between the two – we think it must be run off from the limestone hills that seeps through the rock and then comes up into the sea. Very weird.
Then it rained for an hour or two – we sheltered inside the boat, poking our heads out every 10 minutes to check for traffic. Eventually we reached Licata in twilight and gratefully pulled in to the sheltered marina, tied up to the outer pontoon and after sorting out the boat went to check in and have a couple of well-deserved beers. Brian’s earlier distress seemed to have worked its way out, but he was on bland rations for a couple of days.

Licata marina

Licata marina

We explored around the marina – there is a fairly large shopping mall just 5 minutes’ walk from the marina (it is a part of the marina development) with a big supermarket as well as a mix of other types of retail outlet. Great – very handy.
I needed to find an ATM too, so we explored the town behind the marina. Lots of little alley ways and a weird one way system – finally finding an ATM that worked. We wandered up the main street as far as a major junction, passing a bike shop that we noted for future investigation and also a useful car parts shop, then down to the river (big and muddy), then back to the marina. Quite a long walk. The main streets have loads of palaces as usual – derelict and not – and many churches.

One of the old palaces - Licata

One of the old palaces – Licata

The next day a walk around town had been organised by the marina in conjunction with the tourist office. We all gathered by the office and set off. Much of the tour was to the churches afore mentioned, including one called the Black Christ, “miraculously” the crucifix and effigy had survived the Spanish sacking of the town but had remained black from the fire. The chapel fitted out to house it was quite impressive, lined with wooden carved panels.

The altar of the Black Christ chapel - all wood

The altar of the Black Christ chapel – all wood

A brief stop at the museum showed us recent finds from the sea bed – a series of ancient anchors showing the development of anchor technology. We were taken up the hill to the castle (imposing outside but not a lot to see inside). There were shelves of old farming and domestic implements which were quite interesting.
Finally we headed down hill to see the remains of Greek shrines, another empty space with a new church which used to be an old castle, and then into the tunnels that the Greeks had developed to catch water. That was fascinating – seams of clay in the rock absorb the water which then runs down into a deep cistern way down in the depths of the hill. The Greeks had just made small tunnels and a shaft to access the water, but these had been enlarged in WWII to shelter the population from air-raids.


Having arrived on Wednesday 21st October and the wind settling resolutely in the east, we weren’t going to get to Ragusa before Kevin and Ann left. Also we rather liked Licata. So I arranged to hire a car and we headed over to Ragusa via a Lipu (Italian RSPB) site on an inland lake.
We arrived at Lake Biviere after negotiating our way through Gela – a big town to the east of Licata. We were surprised to see oil derricks (donkeys I think they are called) outside the town pumping away. There are two or three oil platforms out at sea too.
Lake Biviere was great with two proper hides to watch birds from. It was warm and we wandered around the paths after eating our lunch at the picnic tables set out at the centre. We didn’t see much, just a couple of marsh harriers, buzzards, stonechats, and the usual egrets (all three kinds), grey herons, lots of great crested grebes and a couple of little ones, coots and moorhens.


After a couple of hours we continued to Ragusa, finding our hotel where we were shown to a fantastic room in the roof – huge and very nicely done out. Not much of a view though. We found Kevin and Ann and went out to dinner with them. It was great to see them again and we had lots of laughs.

Kevin and Ann on Sailaway

Kevin and Ann on Sailaway

The next morning we toured the marina at Ragusa, deciding that we definitely preferred Licata. Ragusa marina is much bigger than Licata, with a lot more boats and everything is quite a distance to get to. The town also is small (Ragusa main town is 8km inland) and although it would not close up completely over winter there would be less going on.
We left Kevin and Ann to carry on getting ready to leave Sailaway for a month, and returned via Lake Biviere to see if there was anything else flapping around out there – which there wasn’t. It had remained hot – we were back in shorts and T shirts.
Back at Licata marina the next day we paid up for our contract for 6 months and negotiated to move to a more suitable mooring so that our cockpit was facing south to catch the sun. We were given a good berth on the next pontoon and moved the following day – unfortunately catching the lazy line in the propeller as we tightened up the ropes for winter. Ah well – the marina has a diver and a few days later he came along and they moved a few of the lazy lines at the same time as untangling our propeller.

Lighthouse next to our pontoon, castle in the background

Lighthouse next to our pontoon, castle in the background

Italian lessons had been advertised and I decided to go along. Italian is a lot easier for me than Turkish as it has many similarities to French. Progress is slow but sure with two one hour lessons a week and homework. It is led by Father Agostino – a young man who has a small community among the poorer people in Licata. He is also a waiter at the marina café to make ends meet. He has qualified as an Italian teacher in English (fortunately) but seems to speak German, French and Spanish quite well too. Some of the people in the class have Spanish and it creeps in….
That week was busy – Brian redesigned the “trapeze” for the gangplank so it is now tied to the gantry and is much more stable, we hunted for 2nd hand bikes and I was persuaded to buy a new one. Brian got a 2nd hand mountain bike and the shop will buy them back at the end of winter before we leave. Excellent.

Our new bikes

Our new bikes

The marina has a big laundrette which is great – I managed a huge wash for things that we wouldn’t need for the next few months. The washing line is now a permanent fixture.
Since then we have been doing a few jobs in preparation for winter. I repaired the bimini where it had got a small tear and then waterproofed the seams yet again. A few days later it rained and still water was seeping through, so it has been given another coat. I use watered down PVA wood glue – a cheap solution but it does leave dark marks.
The main sail had come unstitched at the edge of a couple of reinforcing panels so I spent a happy but painful hour or two repairing that by hand – balanced on top of the coach roof in a most uncomfortable position.
We put up a tarpaulin on the west side of the boat as “weather” is most likely to come from that direction. That should stop some of the rain coming in to the cockpit on that side. Brian has started on an electronics project (or three) to replace the aluminium plate currently holding all the devices he has designed (water height meter in the tank, light switch for the control panel, in/out ammeter for 12V electricity use, stereo amplifier etc.
One of the boats advertised that they were going to order fabric from a UK supplier using a trade account and did anyone want to join in? We need to make a new cover for the new dinghy, so we measured up (using a similar dinghy that was on the pontoon) and ordered fabric, thread and buckles to also make a new “boot” that covers the mast end of the mainsail. Buying at trade prices was a huge saving. All the stuff has now arrived and it just remains to get on with it.
On Saturday it was Halloween and the live-aboards organised a party to which we all took a few bits of food and drink. Even Brian was persuaded to go and I managed to find a suitable outfit to look a bit like a witch (or a Mexican woman?). Many others had managed to find or make witches hats and cloaks, Dracula suits and skeleton painted overalls. A group turned up with a woman draped in a white sheet and about 5 others clothed in white overalls with hoods, Ghostbusters insignia on their chests and Ikea bags slung on their backs for effect. Music was provided by Ian on Jigsaw (a very prolific organiser with his wife Melanie) and we had a great time.

Halloween and the Ghostbusters

Halloween and the Ghostbusters

Another couple organised that the local cinema would show the Bond film Spectre in English especially for us. About 30 people turned up, we had popcorn and watched the film – great fun. But I am sure the earlier Bond films were a bit more “punchy” – I felt the dialogue was rather bland.

Waiting for the cinema to open

Waiting for the cinema to open

Fly Cinema and a few yachties

Fly Cinema and a few yachties

While walking to our now regular bar in the evenings we saw flocks of wagtails roosting in the palm trees around the marina. They have now largely gone but redstarts have arrived and we watched them displaying around the lawns the other day. In the mornings herons fly south (where to?) and return at dusk.
A couple of evenings there has been a funeral procession up to the big cemetary. The road goes past our bar. One had a full brass band playing funereal music, with the hearse behind them and then about 200 people walking behind. Major traffic jam….
An Italian man has a small motor boat opposite us and comes to fish off the back of the boat several times a week. The other day he caught a big dorade – excellent. Most of the time he is unsuccessful.
Just to the west of the marina is a large bulk cement storage facility. Since we arrived two bulk carriers – one small the other large – have arrived by sea to off load into the two silos. A big pipe is lowered into the holds and they suck the cement out into the silos – one at a time. It makes a lot of noise and dust and we hope that the wind always blows from the north while they are doing it. However it does satisfy our fascination with these sorts of things. It is fun to watch the ships slowly rising as their loads are reduced.

Cement cargo boat unloading

Cement cargo boat unloading

Another event organised by the marina is a series of lectures on the history of Licata. They are given by a small “professor” who has the most amusing facial expressions, but only speaks Italian and gets quite passionate in places. He gets carried away and forgets to stop for the girl who works in the office and translates. Her command of English doesn’t quite match the subject matter either so it does get a bit confusing. I have been taking notes out of interest and the girl now wants me to type them up for distribution. I think I will have to refer to Wikipedia to try to sort out some of the tangle of the names and dates.
Most days there are things with which we could join in – Sunday barbeque (excellent location and equipment on the east side of the marina), Pilates, boules, skittles, guitar lessons, sing along sessions, etc – but we haven’t taken advantage yet. The marina provides a big room with computer and wifi access where most of the indoor events take place and can be used by anyone at any time and there is a big book swap facility.
One day we cycled west past the commercial harbour then along the beach. There are big cliffs of folded limestone and clay, eroded into conical sections. We got to the end of the long beach and could see a footpath continuing around the next point – something to investigate in the future.
Last week Ian and Melanie organised a wine tasting afternoon. They bought 11 different kinds and put them into anonymous bottles labelled A to K. We were all given a scoresheet to identify the strength, type of grape and price of each. And to score which we preferred. It was quite telling that both Brian and I scored well on the cheapest plonk and badly on the rest. I also liked the cask wine that everyone else decided was the worst. Ah well. We staggered back to the boat and I made strong coffee to recover.

Wine tasting - pens at the ready

Wine tasting – pens at the ready

It sounds as though we have a very busy schedule, but in reality we do have days when we don’t do much especially when I feel like taking an afternoon siesta!
So ciao, arrivaderci and all that – until the next episode…

Autumn daffodils

Autumn daffodils

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From → Italy, Wildlife

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