Those who have not sailed in the Mediterranean pass it off as a cruising ground which is benign and non challenging. But while there is no doubt there are far more difficult areas to sail, the Mediterranean can seriously bite the unprepared. The winds can pick up and blow hard at all times of year and when they do they create a short, steep wave set which can make for demanding and very wet sailing.
In the med each wind has its local name, some of the more common and strongest winds are shown above.
In any activity you establish your personal limits, and sailing is no exception. With a family on board we essentially set ourselves the following limits; if our intended route requires a windward beat then 15-20 knots true wind was about the maximum we would set off in. If we were going down wind or reaching we would leave port in winds a little higher, upto 25 knots.
Thats not to say we never experienced big winds, we just chose not to up anchor if the wind was predicted to be too strong.
In our first season we encountered numerous 30 knot plus storms. Our first experience of the Tramontana was in April where we were welcomed to the Gulf of Leon with sustained 40 knot winds for 5 days straight on two separate occasions. The sky was clear, the sun shone, but boy, did the wind howl.
A month later in Mahon in the Balearic islands the wind blew at over 30knots for a week, thanks again to our old friend the Tramontana. It seemed to us that through April and May the Tramontana blew every 2 weeks and almost always producing nasty seas as far south as Sardinia.
I had a quick look at passage weather while writing this post and guess what, its blowing hard in the Gulf de Leon….
On our crossing to the Pontine Islands (Italy) we encountered a storm cell which had our wind gauge topping out at 42knots and we have friends who endured a tough night where the wind was sustained at 35 knots just off the south coast of italy. They had 2 young kids on board, limited sea room they spent a scary night fore reaching into breaking seas. 2 years later, when they recounted the story to us you could still sense the fear they had felt that night.
Another yacht we met on transit from Athens to Bodrum in Turkey was hit by lightning and 50 knot winds in the cyclades. They suffered a complete electrical failure and on board fire. When they radioed for assistance the local fisherman demanded 8,000 euro’s to help tow them the 2 hours to a safe harbour…they declined the kind offer and spent 3 hours in a busy shipping lane with the Auto helm locked to starboard and no instruments. They finally resolved the problems, took stock and crawled to port.
Our friends on Calyxa experienced nearly 50 knots while at anchor in the Kato Vasiliki. It was a strong katabatic wind that pummelled them for a few hours late in the day and into the evening. Their anchor dragged a little and got caught around and old fisherman’s anchor which held them tight, but it took a couple of hours to untangle the mess the following day.
Another time, we were sheltering in a very small inlet in the North of Sardinia when early one morning the wind built to a strong northerly at 30-35 knots. Given the constrained nature of the inlet we couldn’t let out more than 4:1 in anchor scope and as our chain pulled tight in the gusts our transom came alarmingly close to the rocky shore. As a precaution turned on the engine and left it in tick over, just incase…but we held firm. Two other yachts in the inlet dragged and one came within inches of being ashore, with the 8 German men on board becoming very animated!
Meltami in Mykonos
Later in the Season, we had arranged to meet my parents in Mykonos. But the forecast showed a Meltami building and so we decided to make a dash for it before things closed in. As we left the lee of Syros Island the wind picked up. We had anticipated a beam reach in 20 knots of breeze. Instead we were beating into right into 28-32 knots. But this was the last day we could possibly make it…the wind was forecast to be 35 knots the next day and then after that 40 knots plus. One other yacht left the comfort of Finikas anchorage on Syros and set course towards Mykonos. But after a couple of hours hard sailing they thought better of it and diverted into Ermoupoli. It was a wet and challenging sail. But we handled Vega well and she looked after us.
We took shelter in then new Mykonos marina, which really isn’t a marina, It’s a just windswept dust bowl with zero facilities, still it was safe. The only saving grace is small ferry that can take you to Mykonos old town, which is lovely.
We managed to moor stern to along the lee side of a hard concrete wharf so at least we are being blown off the wharf and not towards it. When we arrived the wind was square to the transom, but it soon veered and came around to about 30 degrees off the Port side so every gust tried to push Vega’s bow around straining our anchor and our lines. On day 2 our anchor pulled out but we managed to quickly reset it by pulling in some chain. If our anchor pulled out again it will be tough going to re-set it a second time and re positioning Vega in gusts over 40 knots would have tested the skippers skill a bit too much!
While we were hunkered down, charter yachts tried their luck heading out into the 3m breaking seas – their endeavors never lasted long and they returned looking wet, pale and broken. They then had to run the gauntlet of mooring in howling wind. Lots of yachts got damaged. Bent stanchions, torn sails, scraped gel coat, damaged push pits and bruised egos. We spent most of the 5 days we were there trying to help skippers dock their yachts and learnt a lot in the process.
So, from our personal experiences and other experiences gleened from those who we’ve met, it seems the Mediterranean has its fair share of wild weather. Some of the lessons we learnt were as follows:
- Have respect for the Mediterranean and her winds.
- Realise how beating into short sharp waves can significantly slow down your progress, increasing journey time.
- Understand how islands can significantly increase the wind strength and wave height as it funnels between them.
- When anchoring in high winds you should anticipate strong gusts on the lee of an island.
- Shock loads on the ground tackle/Anchor and boat can be very high and a snubber is essential.
- When docking, ensure all lines run through fairleads and avoid running them over areas where they can chafe more readily. We experienced line chafe on a number of occasions, sometimes in a matter of hours. Use chafe protection (e.g. rubber hose etc) over the warps if necessary.
- If on a wharf, or at anchor in high winds, always have an alternate plan in case things turn sour.
- If high winds are forecast and you are sheltering in a busy anchorage one of your biggest threats are other yachts – think about your anchoring position in relation to other yachts and the consequences for you if they start to drag.