Navigating the Mediterranean

Adventures, challenges, and the changing face of the Mediterranean, as we journey from the Suez Canal to Gibraltar, making stops at some of the most picturesque and historically rich destinations along the way.

9/28/20239 min read

We entered the Med on the day of April's fool and I can't say it was much fun. The Red Sea had been tough as expected and whilst the Med was calm as we came out the canal near Port Saïd, the conditions quickly deteriorated to crossed choppy seas and a "noserly" wind (the name I have given to the wind that comes from the "nose" and that we can't even use to tack or we'll go backwards). We had wanted to cross straight to Malta but had to re-route to Crete, which was still a tough beat of motor-sailing.

Suez Canal: The Gateway to the Med

The man-made marvel that is the Suez Canal connects the Red Sea to the Mediterranean. We waited in Suez until a favorable weather window in the Med opened to begin our transit. All small vessels (by cargo standards!) have to break the transit into 2 passages with a mandatory stop at Ismailia. We stayed 3 nights before heading off on the second leg. The minimum speed in the canal is 5kn and we were asked by the pilots on both legs to go as fast as possible. We maintained 7-8kn as we tend to motor in low rpm for maximum fuel efficiency. The pull from the bow waves of the enormous cargo ships and tankers was very pronounced and we also experienced a lot of strong currents but we rarely bother helming these days except when manoeuvring so the auto-pilot did all the work. Mostly, it was the cold we struggled with as we didn't except to be so cold in the spring in Egypt!

Our sailing track in Sicily, Messina Straight and Aeolian islands (recorded with the Nebo app)
Our sailing track in Sicily, Messina Straight and Aeolian islands (recorded with the Nebo app)
Recording a voyage with the Nebo app
Recording a voyage with the Nebo app

Automatic voyage logging with Nebo

We have been using the Nebo App for a few years but often forgot to hit the record button in the app to log a voyage. When we got to Europe, I was finally able to order the Nebolink device which was a total game changer. The small, easy-to-install device automatically detects when we're on the move and creates a new entry in the log, recording our position every few seconds. I can then access detailed voyage information including weather conditions in the app. I have a unique link to share our position on our website and friends/family and I can contact buddy boats directly in the app. The app has a free tier and Nebolink is very reasonably priced including the ongoing subscription.

Crete: Where Myths and Reality Merge

We had contemplated to spend several seasons in the Med but the cold that greeted us in Suez made us change our minds. After 5 years spent mostly in the tropics, spring (the end of the Mediterranean winter?) is too cold to us. Perhaps I also should reconsider my plans of expedition sailing in cold latitudes... Having spent a lot of time in Europe and the Med years ago, we had a clear itinerary through the Western Med and making landfall in Malta was our first plan. That didn't happen as the Med greeted us with a bang (and as we'd later find out, that's also how the Med sent its good wishes when we left!) with weather conditions quickly turning nothing short of miserable with crossed seas, short and steep waves and wind on the nose.

After nearly giving up and going downwind to Rhodes, our first port of call was Crete, the birthplace of ancient legends. We made landfall to the south of the eastern corner of the island waiting for the wind to ease off before attempting to get a berth in the marina at Agios Nikolaos. As the season hadn't quite started and a lot of boats were still on the hard, we managed to get in and stay for a few days in the hope that the weather would warm up (judging by the snowy peaks of the island, we would have to wait a little longer!). As we visited the island and enjoyed the local wine and food, we re-discovered the unique blend of history and natural beauty that defines the Mediterranean and experienced once again the blend of ancient history and modern life.

Gibraltar: the Gateway to the Atlantic

The south coast of Spain doesn't offer many sheltered anchorages. There are harbours but at this time of year they are usually full and getting a berth for a catamaran with a beam of 9.5m is almost impossible (true for most of the Med). Given the forecasted changing conditions, we had to try because no single anchorage would offer protection to wind coming from all directions over the course of 24 hours only to start all over again the next day. We were fortunate enough to be able to get in at Torrevieja, just south of Alicante. Very fortunate indeed as we would have always managed the conditions but we discovered major water ingress in the starboard engine room, we knew we had a new problem to fix. It turned out to be the heat exchanger, which didn't just leak but was corroded due to electrolysis and literally had eaten itself from the inside, now exhibiting a constant drip. We were even more fortunate in that the local Volvo dealer had the exact part available and we were underway again within 48 hours. Sometimes, things just out!

Malta, with its fortified cities and azure waters, offered a glimpse into the Mediterranean's rich maritime history. We loved the stunning architecture and with the island's naval heritage and excellent reputation of its many ship yards we decided to stay for the month of May to carry out some scheduled maintenance. It was nice to be in a marina and switch off for a few weeks. The last marina stay aside from the short week in Crete was Phuket around Christmas! But we soon were eager to be on the move again and summer was finally starting. Going through our log in the Nebo app, our last 2 stops before sailing to Sicily were Blue Lagoon caves and Mellieha.

Malta: An Island of Contrasts A Fortress in the Sea

We couldn't stay longer than a week in Agios Nikolaos marina as the charter catamaran that usually occupies the berth we were in was being put back in the water, so we set off and enjoyed the anchorages on the north coast of Crete while waiting for a weather window to sail to Malta. We had to settle for a lull and motor-sailing. We welcomed many migrating birds aboard DJ on that passage, sadly quite a few died from exhaustion despite being offered water (and whatever dead bugs I could find).

Sicily and its fiery volcanoes

Sailing north, we reached Sicily. We stopped overnight at the southern tip and continued onto Syracuse the next day. It was a glorious spring day and the Syracuse bay offered excellent shelter as well as easy access to shore and best of all, we had finally arrived in culinary heaven.

We then planned our voyages to sail the 150 sea miles to the Aeolian Islands. Taormina had the best views of Mount Etna and we timed our passage to get favourable conditions to cross the Messina Straight. We still experienced strong currents and whirlpools just as the legends say! Then we set course to Panarea offering the best view of Stromboli.

Sardinia & Corsica: The Wild West of the Med

Sardinia with its the rugged coastline and pristine beaches made for very scenic passages. We sailed straight to the aptly named Esmeralda coast from Panarea and had all the top anchorages in the area almost to ourselves, sharing only with a few yachts that generally didn't stay overnight (we would be in for a shock later on when the high season started).

Corsica truly was the wild beauty of the Med: absolutely wonderful in good conditions, treacherous in anything else. We had to keep moving to avoid either the swell or the wind but one can rarely avoid both. Most anchorages are exposed and the weather can change very quickly so we got used to checking the weather 4 times a day and changing plans despite our desire to stay longer. We strategically planned to cruise Corsica early in the season as summer storms starting in August are increasingly more frequent and intense in the Med due to the effects of global warming. Girola bears the scars of the August 2022 storms that sank many boats and destroyed the mooring field.

Italian & French Rivieras: Where Luxury Meets the Sea

The Italian and French Rivieras dazzled us with their glamour and opulence. But behind the glitz, we couldn't ignore the signs of climate change. Mistral events are a feature of the French Riviera and we endured a week long spell tucked away in the Gulf of Saint Tropez. We then enjoyed 2 weeks of very calm and settled weather, which was great for nights at anchor but not so much for getting to the next anchorage! Increasingly powerful storms threaten these coastal regions and as the forecast announced more settled weather for another week, we figured it wouldn't be long until the next significant weather system. A heat wave was coming through the region too, which hinted at an Omega type system (named after the dome shaped by two surrounding regions of low systems usually in the Atlantic and in Eastern Europe). Any low coming through after such an intense heat wave and with record high sea temperatures in the region, we knew the risk of severe storms would increase so we wanted to position ourselves west enough to run even further west towards Gibraltar when that would happen (and it turned out to be a good strategy for us).

Balearics: The Final Frontier

Our voyage through the Mediterranean culminated in the Balearic Islands. We had flat calm waters and no wind for the whole passage except for 15mn of wind acceleration from 0 to 20kn as we rounded the west corner of Mallorca. As we had anticipated, a low system was forming so we only stayed the one night in Mallorca and made the short passage to Ibiza to sample some of the party atmosphere. Formentera has fantastic beach clubs with great food and great dancing but the party was very short-lived. We had to say good-bye and set off west towards the southern coast of Spain well away from the forecasted storms. We were glad we did, parts of the Balearics saw intense storms and hail with 60kn winds wrecking havoc in anchorages due to the sudden backing of the wind in sever squalls.

The weather after that showed the possibility of another low and more storms, this time affecting the south east coast of Spain so after a brief stop in Cartagena we completed the final leg to Gibraltar, woken up at 2am by an early wind shift announcing the change in weather. By the time we got to Gibraltar, we were close hauled and beating into 25kn of wind. When we rounded the rock, we had 35kn behind us.

Gobal Warming in the Mediterranean

The Mediterranean, with unpredictable temperament tested us. The changing conditions with little warning around location and intensity of adverse weather systems meant we had to adapt and move to the conditions even more so than we ever did. The marinas are all full in summer and this makes it difficult for a visiting yacht to stay in any given location due to there being no safe harbours to run to.

We truly felt how the Mediterranean's climate is becoming increasingly erratic due to global warming. The Med is warming at twice the rate of the global average, sea surface temperatures have hit record highs again this season and high temperatures were recorded very early. We experienced a heat wave in Corsica in June, with temperatures in the mid forties (celsius). We had several others during the season. The water temperature was as high as 28°C which reminded us of the tropics. Of course it was very pleasant and with this year's goal weather patter having switched to El Niño after years of La Niña, we wan't help but wonder about what's to come.

Sailing through the Mediterranean was an unforgettable adventure, a journey through the heart of the Mediterranean and a loud reminder that shifting weather patterns and environmental degradation demand our attention and commitment. As we continue to explore the world's oceans, we hope that we can continue to enjoy the freedom that sailing provides while adapting to the new constraints global warming imposes upon us.