Passage planning is a dangerous game says Lu Heikell as she considers why sailing and deadlines don't mix


Passage planning is more a leap of faith than hard fact. Yes, we study the passage charts, tides and currents, prevailing winds as well as the forecasts and use a modest average speed, but how often is it that the plan survives contact with reality?

We had been invited to a maritime book festival near Rome in late April. Rather than take a plane or a train, we reckoned it would be possible to launch Skylax and get a weather window to cross the Ionian and sail up there from Lefkas. Deadlines and sailing. How many times have I said ’Don’t do it’ to others?

Sailing westwards in this part of the world means heading ‘into’ weather systems which tend to move eastwards. Thus the window can close rapidly, and we didn’t much fancy getting a pasting in the aptly named Golfo di Squillace in our first days at sea.

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We waited patiently for a series of fronts to pass, days ticking down to our agreed cut-off date when we would abandon our plan to sail to Rome and get a ferry across to Italy instead. Our primary plan was to get across the Ionian and up the Straits of Messina in one hit, with Tropea as a likely first stop.

Alternative ports were kept in mind – at that time of year a berth would not be difficult to find, but some ports would not be possible to enter in a blow. My main aim was to try and arrive in the Straits in daylight. I had passed through here on numerous occasions, but only once had I been able to fully admire Mount Etna.

Just as we had all but booked a pair of ferry tickets, a break in the weather showed itself and so we did a last-minute shop and headed out from Greece on a sweet beam reach, just as the forecast had promised.

‘Perfect’, I thought to myself as the plotter teasingly suggested an ETA of 0600 on the second morning to the waypoint off Capo Spartivento. Oh how the wind gods laughed! Within an hour our best course was heading south of Sicily. Then Otranto. Then the wind allowed us back onto course but dropped to zephyrs. No matter that none of this was reflected in the forecast.

But then again, that’s all part of why we love this fickle mode of transport. We settled in, made meals, took naps, checked navigation and ignored the treacherous ETA guessometer. It was a pleasant shake-down after a winter at home and we were happy to ease our way into cruising mode. The days were sunny but short, and sundown brought a chill that my trusty Guernsey sweater and thick socks made bearable.

I guess it was almost preordained that we arrived at the south end of the Messina strait as the sun went down on our third evening. Staying close to the Italian mainland side kept us out of the main shipping lanes, but the fishing boats and ferries kept us on our toes as we navigated north with the bright lights of Reggio di Calabria hiding the nav lights of the local marine traffic. The wind was against us but the neap current still gave us a fair boost when it mattered. We cleared the straits as a weak sun signalled dawn.

Tropea marina was still in winter sleep mode when we arrived. The restaurant was more card school for the family than food service, but the patron provided a fabulous spread on short notice. After a good night’s kip we headed off on leg two to Rome and made it to the festival with a couple of days to spare.

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