Volcano Stu

Boat Captains tend to go the same way. Different reasons for different boats. Shipping lanes rule in straits and gulfs, on approach to large ports, passing around capes, headlands etc. Small vessels, such as us, should cross these lanes at ninety degrees or as close as possible to. On the open sea it’s a bit looser. The big ships have radar and AIS, a ship identification system. We have our eyes and our attention span. If on a collision course with a ship, it’s always best to change course, Or slow down. Don’t presume that the other vessel will, even if power should give way to sail, as it says in the sailing book I’m studying. From the western Mediterranean, a yacht on a voyage east would always pass north of Sicily and then head through the Straits of Messina, even though the gap between that island and Malta, to it’s south, is much wider. Three kilometres to ninety. I would have thought that the smaller vessels would go south to stay out of trouble in such a busy area. But the waters south of Sicily are shallow and actively volcanic. Bad things can happen. We’ve had three thousand metres under us for the most part. Three whole kilometres of molten cubic force under our fiberglass hull. I step lightly.

Last night’s watch was the strangest yet. Suffering from lack of sleep, only now I realise I had got about forty five minutes in twenty four hours. Can that be right? I think so, I had been up since 3am. Overtired, I didn’t sleep before my midnight watch which was until three so, yeah, the snooze I had on deck yesterday was about it. I stayed in my bunk but couldn’t sleep. Went on deck at midnight to see a huge cruise ship quite close to port, Dan smiling cheerfully at it. “A floating Christmas tree!” It had passed across our bow, in between us and our companion boat and was heading away to our port quarter. He pointed out the few ships around us, none as close as the quickly vanishing representation of overkill, and went below. The lights of the various ships dwindled as they moved over the horizon and once again Adam and ourselves were alone. I was filled with anticipation, and ultimately a sense of foreboding. Some shooting stars and a couple of dolphins only served to startle me. I was freaked out. My mind full of questions. Are we really here? Is there anything out there? Will we arrive where these islands are marked to find nothing? The sea had begun to shift under us again and we had clouds above for the first time in days. Ominous clouds. But it might have just been me. Might? It was just me. My imagination was firing on all cylinders. It was quiet, no ships in sight. Too quiet, a movie script might say.

A little before half two and I noticed something ahead. On the horizon? No, a little above, higher than the light atop Adam’s mast, not a ship then. It was the barest of red smudges against the night’s black. I grabbed the binoculars and steadied myself against the spray hood. The glimmer flew back and forth until  I focused in on it. A slow explosion was unfolding before my eyes! Could it be? It was higher than the horizon. Are we that close? It’s very far away, it must be massive! Is it? It is! Fuck! Fuck! What’ll we do? Where do we go? A flurry of thoughts passed through my tired mind. It was 2:25am, I went below and woke the Captain. “Mark… Mark… I think we’re heading straight for an erupting volcano!” He shifted in his bunk and quietly told me, “Stuart, it’s the moon.” The words stopped me right in my tracks. My brain scrambled for thought and I went on deck again, just in time to see a red crescent moon disappear behind some cloud. If only I had waited a few more seconds before going below to wake the skipper, I’d have realised it earlier. Man I felt foolish but Mark cheerfully assured me that this was normal, especially due to lack of sleep and too much sun along with the general sense of overpowering awe that I’d been feeling and that on the fifth day at sea things are always this way. I hadn’t seen the moonrise yet on my watches, it had always come up whilst I was sleeping. Dan had thought it was a spaceship coming out of the water on his first watch. I’d forgotten the story, the moon had been nearly full and had risen bright as a car’s headlamps. Quickly too, by his account. I remembered all this as I was sent to bed, barely able to take my gear off. So goddamned tired, slightly embarrassed, no dreams.

Then… this morning. Wow. I’m currently looking at an active volcano, smoking, not exploding. The sea is glass itself. Our last few hours on the Tyrrhenean Sea, the sea where nothing happens, was full of action. A pod of dolphins, turtles, sunfish and frolicking whales in the distance. Through the Aeolian Islands, we are nearly at Lipari. Beautiful. Jesus wept and so did I. This morning has been incredible. Awoken at a bit past nine by Mark, “The day’s nearly gone”, I came up on deck to another world. A glassy sea, the thin clouds mirroring themselves, the horizon uncertain. Sitting facing starboard I noticed a few fish jumping in the distance. Tuna? Heading to or away from us? We’ve had a fishing line out for the last few days but no luck as yet. I happened to be holding Dan’s camera, my batteries having died. The fish were coming closer, faster and faster it seemed. Bigger and bigger too. Fish? They were dolphins, a pod of twenty maybe, zooming towards us with little jumps in and out of the water. Jesus the speed of them. They reached us and we raced to the bow. What a sight. Clear blue ocean with these gorgeous mammals playing underneath us. Submerging to a depth and then flying back up. A little jump, roll to the side, a little grin, perhaps? I could swear one winked at me. So clear, so visible, amazing. I managed to film some of it on Dan’s camera, although his batteries then also died. Mark got the photos. The clarity of the water, the big fishes’ clarity of purpose. They roll, jump, grin and astound us. And the conditions were so perfect, the cloud burnt away as this unfolded, we have unbelievable luck. Suddenly they leave us and we can see them remain active in one area, maybe they used the boat as cover for hunting. We’re left speechless, you can’t expect something like this. We laugh with tears in our eyes, what a sight!

As we continue, now past Alicudi with Filcudi to port and Salinas to starboard, an old turtle is sunbathing. Mark steers us towards it with me manning his camera. Expecting the turtle to dive, I rattle of a bunch of shots with the zoom but he stays on the surface as we get near, even lifting his head as if to say,  “What do YOUS want?” I got a couple of nice shots and then we see that our change of course is bringing our fishing line too close to the poor beast. “Jesus, don’t catch him!” The line passes over him a few metres from the hook, he ducks his head as it does, appearing not to care. We cared. In our state, if we’d hooked that turtle, we wouldn’t have been able to face ourselves.

This morning continues with a bunch of whales in the distance playing on the surface. Seems everyone’s enjoying this fine spring day. We can’t tell what type or how many of them there are, so far away that it’s hard to get much detail through the glasses. I see three birds out to port with tuna jumping around them. The fins of two starfish are visible soon after, another turtle passes as I take a well earned shower, the first since leaving dock in Canet, a world away from us now. All this and the impending promise of land. What a day! 
Each island of this archipelago is more interesting than the next. Alicudi and Filicudi mirror each other, and there’s a submerged volcano northwest of them. Salinas is the highest, about one thousand metres. It plunges into one and a half thousand metres of sea. If there’s more submerges ones, it’s possible they are on the other side of the three islands to port, on the way to Stromboli, which for a short time we could just about make out in the distance. Apparently, instead of saying that there are seven Aeolian Islands, it’s more realistic to say that there are currently seven Aeolian Islands, as these things change or have changed in recent history. Salinas looks like it blew it’s top many moons ago, but as it passes we can see Lipari, and further away, Vulcano. It has an active crater. We disown each island as the next one nears. The perfect smoking crater facing us prompts me to life. We must have phone coverage again! I ring home and talk to Da and Jamie. What can I say? I open with, “I’m looking at a volcano!” I can barely believe it. I’ve only seen one once before. It was from the plane taking off from Phuket on the way to Australia, a quick glimpse. In one morning I’ve seen so much, it feels like my experience down under has been beaten, condensed, and served up. My mind has blown.

We approach the harbour with a lovely anticipation for food, wine and ice cream but most of all, people. I wave at a couple on a fishing boat and am truly delighted to get enthuasiastic waves back. We finally get to the bay on the east side and head to the harbour. A cop boat shoots across us and we have to swerve to hit the bow wave head on. Eve jumps up and slams down, the most violent move she’s made yet. It gives us an indication of what she may be like in bad weather. Within ten minutes we are docked and reunited with Adam and her crew. The unsteady walk we made to town, my god. Single file along a skinny busy road. No pavement, we giggle with the lack of balance our sea legs give us.

People. Smiling, nice, people. The stevedores who helped us moor the boats were chilled and friendly, like most people seem here. What a place. Bar Luna is a name I’ve heard so often from Mark’s lips. We stop there first. Cold beer, olives, bread, nuts, thinly sliced fresh tuna. Oh so nice. Into town and shops, stuff everywhere, so much to look at. We’re hungry, we head for pizza. Even on this small island, the Italians have their designer shit going on. This restaurant seems posh, in an overly flashy kind of way. Food ordered, I ring a few people at home. Pete’s mate Fred sits beside  me. Interesting guy, they and Luca have been having a ball. It’s probably a different experience, the different boat. I confess my exploding volcano story and Fred tells me, “Don’t worry, I’ve sailed a lot, I own my own boat, but that night I thought the moon was some sort of art-deco installation. It took me a while to figure it out, I was trying to think who would put something like that there, and why?” We eat and get very quickly drunk. We have to get out before we cause a ruckus. As we finish, well dressed families are filling the place. Back to Bar Luna we go. To my delight I find a guitar in the pub. Two weeks and I haven’t touched one. I can’t remember so many lyrics, but enough to give Elvis and Jimi and few renditions. Our bargirl Maria rings her friends and a bunch pile in. I barely notice, so happy I am to sing and play. Joyful, really. Then somebody says that one of the locals played a bit. I pass the guitar to a quiet guy sitting on the stairs. He plays, it astounds me. Emotional Pete’s eyes water, he’s saying something about this song being a hit in the Netherlands. Great lyrics, intricate playing and such a voice! Real Italian, but sung in English. And it’s his song. Who is this guy? The night continues with Giovanni Ullu and I passing music between us, drunkenly singing everything from Marianne Faithful songs to my own, with Giovanni shouting encouragement at each chord change. He then crowns it all with a version of Bridge Over Troubled Water sung in a variety of voices including Robin Gibb, Bruce Springsteen and Pavarrotti. I’ve found a brother in song. I must return here, it’s the place I’ll bring my wife. The older Captains and crew had vanished and eventually us cousins staggered home to finish the night chatting on deck with Vulcano smouldering over Luca’s shoulder.