Cruising Sicily: Dodging volcanic eruptions on the long journey south

Princess 54 owner Robert Prevezer enjoys an 800nm adventure to southern Italy, Sicily, and its enchanting islands.

Regular readers may remember the last article I wrote about our voyage from the South of France to Gaeta, just north of Naples (MBY January 2018). We were searching for new boating horizons and we certainly found what we were looking for.

With no disrespect to the French (we had some fabulous times there), we have come to love the Italian culture – the food, the family atmosphere and the warm welcomes. In every harbour we visit, the port crew immediately jump aboard, to help with the lines. And always with a jolly smile. What a pleasure!

Thus far we have enjoyed two seasons cruising the Pontine Islands, Ischia, Capri and the Amalfi Coast. Our Princess 54 L’amitié has given us everything we wanted – reliable and relaxed cruising with ample space and comfort for our three grown-up children and any visiting friends.


Robert’s Princess 54 L’amitié berthed in the shadow of Tropea’s historic buildings

This is now our sixth season together and she seems able to cope with all sea conditions effortlessly. We have always believed in preventative maintenance and we follow Volvo Penta’s service guidelines to the letter.

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Gaeta hasn’t proved as much of a bargain as we had hoped. The mooring fees are cheaper than the French Riviera, but the boatyard costs are just as expensive. Leaving the boat for the winter anywhere overseas is always an act of faith so good communications are crucial and in this respect Gaeta has worked well for us. But we’re never content to sit still, so where to next? The obvious answer was to keep on heading south!

New plans afoot

The rough plan was to cruise down to the toe of Italy, explore the Aeolian Islands then hop across to the north coast of Sicily before heading west to the Egadi Islands – just a small voyage of around 800nm! We allowed four months to achieve this, restricting each stage of the cruise to 10-12 days so we could come back to the UK regularly to recover from our exertions and catch up with other interests.

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Key to this adventure was to take it slowly and enjoy the moment, stopping off whenever and wherever we fancied. Boating always brings its challenges and reading the pages of MBY you’d think it’s all plain sailing. It rarely pans out that way and sure enough our departure was delayed by a faulty battery charger that was ‘over-cooking’ our domestic batteries and burning them out. Once replaced, we were ready to go.

Amalfi coast

After dodgy weather in May 2019, the weather finally improved in June and as we reached the Amalfi Coast, the temperature rose, the sun emerged and the wind dropped. It augured well! Some of the on-shore experiences contributed massively to the overall pleasure of the cruise, and the first of these was in Amalfi. But not the Amalfi most tourists are familiar with.

If you walk through the over-crowded town and follow the only street heading uphill, you eventually come to the Paper Mill Museum, cross the road and you start the steep climb to a place of wonder – the Valle delle Ferriere. The path takes you on a magical trek past a multitude of lemon groves, to a stunning forest with fast-flowing streams, waterfalls and gin-clear pools. My daughter said it was like something from Narnia!


L’amitié on a visitor’s buoy outside Positano during their cruise along the Amalfi coast

We crossed the bay of Salerno and at Agropoli we visited Paestum, the site of one of the biggest preserved Greek temples in Europe. Our next stop, Acciaroli, is extraordinary for one particular reason; it is the age-defying town where over 10% of the population lives to 100 or more.

The reason for this anomaly still isn’t fully understood but the Acciarolian love of locally-grown rosemary (the inspiration behind the launch of Rosemary Water in the UK) is rumoured to play a part.

It is rare to find a truly awful port in Italy but Camerota was the exception to the rule. Arriving at 6pm, we motored cautiously through the heavily silted port entrance past garbage piled high, to be directed to a berth in an area of the port that was thick with sewage and all kinds of unmentionable debris.


Unfortunately it was too late in the day to leave and we stayed the night, paying for the pleasure in a charmless marina office filled with personnel who made no apologies for the state of the port.

In contrast, after Camerota came the beautiful villages of Scario, Sapri and Maratea. All picturesque, tranquil ports. Our final leg of this journey took us to Tropea, a delightful ancient town perched high on a cliff, and a port that has undergone huge improvements. The staff were delightful, helpful and charming.

Having casually asked where we could buy seven cases of bottled water to replenish supplies, three men turned up 15 minutes later, having bought and carried the water for us from the local supermarket! Service above and beyond.


Emily takes L’Amitie’s helm on another glorious Italian day

Aeolian islands

After a brief pause to pop back to the UK, we returned to pick up the trail by cruising to the Aeolian Islands, somewhere I’d been longing to visit for years. It didn’t disappoint. There are six of these volcanic islands, each very different to the other with their own unique characteristics.

From the actively steaming and sulphurous-smelling Vulcano to the one-village island of Panarea with its spectacular midnight waterfront fireworks festival and the tiny bolt-hole of Filicudi, which is home to nothing but a solitary beach restaurant. Salina was a haven of tranquil beauty while Lipari bustled with activity.

We even took time out to visit the brooding island of Stromboli. Only Alicudi eluded us, proving a little too remote for our liking. But it was on Stromboli that we had the most extraordinary and memorable experience.


The tiny port of Maretea in Southern Italy en route to Sicily and the Aeolian islands

We had heard that the island was worth a visit and in particular a restaurant located halfway up the active volcano crater. Having been taken by buggy up to the open-air restaurant, it looked like any other outdoor Mediterranean eatery with 100 or so people enjoying a romantic candlelit dinner. However, the deep rumble that emanated from the ground every 15 minutes followed by visible flames erupting just above where we were sitting, proved it was anything but!

It was only the calm way in which everyone carried on with their next course that convinced us all was as it should be. Little did we know what was to follow. A mere eight hours later, after we had arrived at the neighbouring island of Filicudi, our phones burst into life with dozens of messages from friends and family asking if we were still alive.

Apparently, almost as soon as we had left Stromboli, the volcano had a major eruption for the first time in 100 years. Tragically a tourist was killed and everyone on the island had to flee for their lives. With the prospect of a further eruption and the unlikely but possible eventuality of a tsunami, we spent a very uneasy night at anchor watching and waiting for further news.


The family experienced a very close call with a brooding Stromboli, which erupted a matter of hours after their visit

Thankfully we awoke the next morning to find nothing more serious than a fine layer of black ash covering the hull.

Sicily sojourn

Our next leg took us across to Sicily and along its northern coast. Sicily is a very big island – almost 150 nautical miles from east to west. Along the way we found the relatively new port of Capo d’Orlando offering great facilities and incredibly helpful staff. The only drawback as a place to leave the boat for an extended stay is the 2.5-hour journey to either Catania or Palermo airports.

The north coast is beautiful but not blessed with many places to overnight. The exception to this was Cefalu, the location for the wonderful movie, Cinema Paradiso. We found a mooring in the small port and spent a delightful two days exploring this beautiful historic town.


Room with a view in Cefalu, Siciliy

We were warned that Palermo in August is unbearably hot and crowded with tourists so we decided to bypass it making a mental note to re-visit in spring or autumn. Almost by accident we came upon a very special place, San Vito Lo Capo – a stunning location and a tiny port.

We were so enamoured by the place and the helpful port staff, that we took the risk of leaving L’Amitie there for a few weeks on a floating pontoon. It is a tourist resort, but very simple and basic with a multitude of great restaurants and lovely people.

Egadi islands

On our return we pressed on to the Egadi Islands, off the northwest corner of Sicily. These are entirely unspoilt and we loved them so much that we actually made two trips here.


The tranquil fishing village of Scilla on the toe of Italy just a short hop across from Sicily

One of the many attractions of the islands is that they form part of a marine reserve with managed mooring buoys. You can either pay a flat fee for the duration of your visit or pay as you go. We didn’t have any trouble finding a free one and knowing that they are 100% secure made for very relaxed overnight stays.

There are three Egadi islands – Levanzo, Marettimo and Favignana – all very different. The port in Levanzo is not for visiting boats but there is a choice of beautiful bays in which you can pick up a mooring buoy. The island is famous for the Grotta del Genovese caves.

Marettimo has a very small port for visitors but we chose another mooring buoy in a beautiful bay. The village is truly charming. Everything was white-washed and picture perfect. We wandered through empty alleyways, past extended families eating their dinner outside on long trestle tables, just like something from an Italian movie.


Even the water is the colour of emeralds off Levanzo, the jewel in the crown of the Egadi Islands

The restaurant we settled on was Il Viliero – a big, well-lit family affair with tables overlooking the sea. It was great fun and the food was superb.

Favignana was the most developed of the Egadi Islands – although that’s not saying much! Essentially, it consists of a small, picturesque village with cobblestone streets and two central squares. Again, we found it utterly charming. There are plenty of restaurants to choose from, all bustling with tourists but not unpleasantly so.

We moored up to one of the two competing managed jetties. The staff were helpful and the port has an unusual backdrop of an abandoned tuna fishing factory, once the predominant industry of the Egadi Islands. As we cruised around Favignana, we found lots of beautiful bays to stop in, all with the same secure buoys for safe overnighting.


The Prevezers take their time picking the perfect spot to drop anchor for lunch

Winter’s tale

By the time October arrived my top priority was where to leave the boat for the winter. Of the places we’d visited thus far Capo d’Orlando on the north coast of Sicily seemed like the best option but this would mean retracing our steps for three days of cruising, which seemed a bit silly.

Alternatively, we could carry on cruising round to the south coast of Sicily and hope to find somewhere there. With time running out, we decided to take dramatic action and head north-west across the sea to Sardinia, a solid eight-hour cruise!

We had been recommended a suitable port there by a friend at Ottiolu on the north-east coast of the island and this seemed the safest bet. It’s a leap of faith leaving your pride and joy somewhere unfamiliar so the reassurance that there was ‘a man’ there who could be trusted to look after L’Amitié over the winter convinced us to make the trip.


Robert’s son Ben does the evening honours with hose and scrubbing brush in hand

Although I consider ourselves quite brave motor boat owners, the prospect of an eight-hour cruise, seven hours of which would be out of sight of land, was quite daunting. I double and triple checked the fuel consumption figures for the Princess 54; in theory with full tanks and cruising at an average speed of 20 knots we should have enough fuel to keep the two 800hp Volvo D13s running for 13 hours.

We checked every weather forecast available and after a day’s delay for strong winds, we set off. It turned out to be a blissfully uneventful cruise with my wife and daughter both taking stints at the helm to help us all stay focused. With the autopilot engaged and no sign of any boats, long-distance cruising can become quite mesmerising so changing helm positions regularly was important.

Watching the sea for debris and monitoring the engines’ oil pressure and temperature, and double-checking the plotter against the old-fashioned dashboard compass requires some concentration. Because of the distance, if our heading was out by a few degrees we could end up in Tunis!


The picturesque Egadi Islands

Catching sight of land after a long cruise is always exciting. Is it actually land you are seeing through the haze or just your imagination? And will you arrive where you’d planned to? And even though you think you’re almost there, it is still another two hours before you actually reach port.

The final three days of our epic voyage was spent cruising north along the east coast of Sardinia. Unfortunately, we faced the strongest head winds of our entire four-month journey, and by the time we finally reached Ottiolu, as the very last moments of daylight faded, we were exhausted. Mercifully, the capitainerie had been monitoring our progress and welcomed us in with a warm greeting before helping us secure our boat for the winter.

It had been a wonderful few months exploring parts of Italy that not all boaters reach and the real joy is knowing that it’s not over yet. We are already planning on exploring Sardinia in 2020 and beyond that, who knows, but we can’t see ourselves moving L’Amitié from Italy any time soon.

First published in the March 2020 edition of Motor Boat & Yachting.


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