We owe these reflections on the sea and pipes to our friend Luca and his generosity as a sailor and pipe smoker. His shifting impressions during a voyage have prompted us to set sail for our own destination.
Each place is not simply a place, but it also holds a fragment of our selves, something that relates our own story. Travelling is a way to find ourselves, and when the sea is our highway, then we breathe in the world’s infinite breath, as well as our own. Indeed, the ancient language of that vast stretch of water conveys a distant pulse through the musical silence of the waves that gradually echoes our own heartbeats. To a careful listener this synchrony suggests that we have already been there, that we are part of the whole. Some people are more sensitive than others, and a smell is enough to evoke memories. A tingling sensation in your nose that makes your eyes water. Others need to feel the water, the universal amniotic liquid that has cradled all life forms. There are those who wish to capture the image on their retina, so that if they close their eyes the endless, shifting horizon is still impressed. Then there are those who have to cross the sea, a bridge connecting land to land, following a path that takes them back to the way they were or to their future selves, to the person that waits for us on the other side, in the parting hugs of those before leaving, while all existence rhythmically and constantly flows beneath our feet. The sea knows how to listen, to welcome and although frightening, it is also comforting. Seemingly mute, yet it is a good talker. Whoever leaves the truth of the land for the freedom of the sea will be caught under its spell. It is as if going by sea entailed a momentary suspension of the urgency of reason, which gives way to placid emotions that sometimes make the body sluggish and always refresh thought. Sea travel also serves to reflect, although it seems as if there are no thoughts. This is because they are thoughts that flow straight from the heart, instinct, and the core of each person, and even if they do not pass through the brain to become words, they still leave their mark, redirecting the soul’s course and mixing destinies and destinations. Then there also the wind, the world’s second breath which captures us and duets with the sea. Sometimes it is classical music, romantic string symphonies. Other times it is a jazz concert, waves like trumpet solos and sudden gusts of piano. Mostly it is light music, which makes you want to sing and tap with your fingers on the wheel, or else to whistle or light a pipe. The sea has its own movements that the seaman mirrors. Smoking a pipe is part of this mimicry. You fill your pipe bowl and set off for a voyage. The toing and froing of the waves mirror the puffs of smoke, trimming the sails to travel faster is like relighting your pipe, and you watch the smoke drift away as you glance at the wind indicator attached to the top of the mast. While all this is going on you savour the saltiness, tobacco, and impressions. Then suddenly teeth and lips clench the pipe stem, as the wind has changed and someone has angered Aeolus, the wind god. The still-burning hands after frenzied reefing in the middle of a storm cannot wait to return to a relaxed hold on the piece of briar, while the boat plays the sea like a bow on a violin and smoke traces the notes. The pipe and sea interpret the same musical staff.
One thing that every sailor knows is that what the sea engulfs, the sea will then regurgitate. All the memories and words, advice and hopes, fears and joy of those who have chatted with IT, take shape in the sea foam, and the pipe, thoughts, hopes and joys return to be recounted during another voyage and another smoke.
The Ocean, King of the Seas (by Luca Magni)
4 April 2013
Home. A glass of sparkling Barbera, my black cat playing with the ribbon bookmark of my book of thoughts and moments. I pick it up every now and then when I have something interesting to write. The mere feel of the leather is a delight. The delight is even greater because it was given to me by a person I deeply love and whenever I pick it up, it evokes memories. The page before the one I am about to write on bears the words: “18.40: mustn’t get involved with what’s happening around me, remain passive, but not distant and stay alert. It isn’t always easy. There are only 67 miles to go before we sight St. Barts Island. It will get light tomorrow morning between 4 and 5. Landing at night in a strange place is not a good idea, but there it is”. This was the last entry of a voyage we went on two years ago, in November 2011 from Porto Torres to St Barts in the Caribbean. Here we go again, this time from Santo Domingo to Lisbon. So many miles. Thousands of miles. The only thing I can think of is the person I love.
I’m glad to be going, and as usual before any important voyage curiosity and the wish to discover and learn is veiled with a slight melancholy, by trains of thought, by going over movements that will accompany me for days, and that by night will be automatic.
We are finally setting off, and as usual when I leave I have no expectations. Expectations are two-sided, and can often let you down. Your expectations are your personal hopes, but don’t reflect reality. As usual I have packed two bags. One that I need to keep me human – four T-shirts and little else. The other contains an oilskin, boots and some warm clothes. In both I have also packed my enthusiasm, curiosity, constant eternal restlessness and a true passion for the sea and emotions. Yes, I’m a terribly passionate person. One of those people in life who gets excited about everything and so gets into trouble.
I leave for Malpensa. A Blue Panorama charter plane. Plane ok, service ok, price very ok, and I queue for an hour at the check-in desk. I get there and find out that I can only bring 20kg. However, I’m lucky because a kind, but very serious young lady at the desk is persuaded into letting me go through with all my baggage as I can’t possibly leave anything behind. She quietly tells me to remove the second bag from the conveyor belt and take it with me, even if the bag is in fact too heavy, but she tells me she will be the one at the gate embarking passengers and will turn a blind eye when it’s my turn. The journey begins splendidly, and I have already met a really nice person. Then we are airborne. I love everything about flying, including the meals, whatever they are.
I land at La Romana in the Dominican Republic, and my three-star hotel is waiting for me, as well as a day’s drive in my new Fuji X10. La Romana is the least attractive city I’ve seen. A modern, chaotic urban conglomeration, but it’s busy, difficult life is fascinating. At first I always feel out of place when I visit somewhere for the first time, and I need several hours to decide what to do and where to go, but in the end I always end up wandering around, eyes wide open to seek new sensations. I must say that after travelling so much this isn’t easy. A policeman stops me on the corner of the street and advises me not to go further for security reasons. The fact that I have just gone beyond the town centre intrigues me. I have lunch in a very local restaurant, where I have fried chicken and chips beneath a sign that advises clients to wash their hands thoroughly for protection against cholera, and I ask a few questions. A place where any Italian before me has never stopped. I don’t wash my hands. The man tells me that the crime rate is quite high. I’m a pacifist. I don’t like violence. Quite a few people go around with arms, and outside the Exchange Bureaus there are one or two people armed with a shotgun. I look closely and they are certainly not water pistols. I go to change 50 Euro and chat in my weird Spanish and decide that I’ll have to be careful. The country is extremely poor and the people get by as best they can. It’s just as well I know this, and sadly I have to refrain from taking my night walks. Expectations! I take just 4 photos. I’m very happy.
Casa de Campo Marina
The next morning I go on board the yacht, which is docked in the Marina of Casa de Campo. Compared to what I saw the day before, this is a real slice of dreamlike heaven, lush, green, perfectly-kept vegetation in a well-guarded area. In fact, it’s so well-guarded it takes three hours to gain access. Inside, villas of all sizes. Villas owned by foreigners, especially Italians (it is said that there are a lot of wily old foxes here), a resort, and 4 or 5 golf courses. There are also a number of well-off Dominicans who live inside the resort for safety’s sake.
Nobody walking on the paths, only electric karts that whizz by. I take a taxi and 10 minutes later, after having got through the barriers, I arrive at the Marina. We’re here, and I start getting excited. I’ll get to know my travelling companions, the yacht, and leaving land behind. I’m looking forward to stepping off the jetty onto the deck of the yacht. A small step, but big enough.
The yacht is wonderful. It is called Huck Finn, owned by Vittorio Malingri and his 24-year-old son, Nico. On board, Bolivar, a Panama-based Chilean, and soon Toni will arrive, an authentic Roman and extremely nice guy. I’m lucky. They are all special. The vessel is a 65-foot, (20-metre) cutter, designed by German Freres in 1982, and built in Florida.
Vittorio, Vitto, Vitt, Ugo to his closest friends. My old man according to Nico and his friends. Vittorio is everything that you expect from an expert sailor. Lots of experience, delightful stories, pleasant, fluid movements on the boat, a constant lesson in sailing at any time of the day. A dose of humanity that I think is rare, as well as being kind and easy to like. He is also an excellent cook. He’s been sailing since he was sixteen, when his father first took the family round the world. Indeed, the Malingri family have created the art of Italian sailing. Giovanni Soldini and Vitto, Ugo, learnt from him, and they have also been great friends since they were children. You can see and feel their story and also their enthusiasm.
Nico, El Nano to his friends. Wonderful person. He has been sailing for two years with Vittorio and is discovering all his sailing secrets. He is really nice and extremely generous. He has the makings and practice of a wild seaman. So much energy flowing 24 hours a day. We look for the switch, but it’s well hidden.
A Roman from Rome, but not typically Roman. A quiet, friendly person, and a keen weather expert. I’m lucky, I can learn from him, too, and in fact I eagerly do so. I share the cabin with him, taking turns to sleep and steer the yacht. But we can still share some moments together during the voyage. He is very impatient and this is to my benefit.
Boli is Nico’s age, and has lived on a boat in Panama since he was fifteen. He’s a surf champion and expert photographer. He’s here on the Huck Finn because he is a friend of theirs, and this is a chance to go to Europe, where he will stay for a few months to tour it all.
My pipe, given to me by Cosimo and Leonardo, the owners of Al Pascià, a historic pipe shop in Italy and elsewhere. Great connoisseurs who have become friends, and I’m honoured. The pipe has been my travelling companion, smoked in tense or relaxing moments. Sweet taste of smoke in the mouth mixed with saltiness. Friendly, warm white cloud that has followed the motion of waves and thoughts. I couldn’t have done without it. Nico is also an enthusiast. I will send him a pipe with the tobacco that I smoked in a great little nappa leather pouch designed by the two brothers to keep it safe.
The watches are incessant: 2h 24 minutes at the helm followed by 2h 24 minutes assisting the helmsman on watch. A total of 10 hours a day. If you ask why 2h 24mins, divide 24 hours by 5. In this way the watches fall at regular intervals throughout the day and everyone easily adapts to this routine.
The autopilot is broken, so we have to hand steer all the time in all weather conditions.
Logbook and diary entries
10.30 am. We slipped our lines from the quay and sailed to Saona Island.
Saona Isand is a few nautical miles from Casa de Campo – Romana – Dominican Republic.
12.30 pm. We moored at a small, palm-strewn beach, and the perfume of the trees could be smelled all over the Caribbean. White beach, light blue and green sea, scorching sun. We were staying there until the next day for a pre-crossing rest, as the voyage promised to be challenging. The sun beat down. As I’m from Milan, it became unbearable after a few hours. Legs and arms soon got sunburn and as usual I hadn’t applied any protective cream or lotion. After three days I was a serpent shedding my skin. You could smell the Caribbean after 5 o’clock when the tourists left the Island. Until then you could hear music blaring out and someone on the PA system saying things that reminded me of beach games. I wondered how the hell it was possible that people couldn’t appreciate silence and needed someone to bust their balls all the time so they could say they had had a great time on holiday. Who knows… bad taste often wins.
The mood on board the boat was good, we chatted and got to know each other. We were like a group of high-school kids on holiday, laughter, good food and wine. We told one another about ourselves, our sea experiences, expectations, fantasies and truths. Some thought about home and their loved ones. It was still a crossing and you could never tell.
We checked the weather forecast and maps downloaded from Zygrib. The data showed three large pockets of high pressure which we needed to avoid, and a pocket of low pressure was forming along the American coast at the level of NY, so we hoped to pick that up and have a good run home.
So we decided to head due north Rb15° as far as the Bermudas, and from there follow the most direct great circle route (note: the great circle route is the largest arc joining two points on the Earth, and is the shortest distance between two points when distances are great, as in this case). Actually, in order to follow the most direct great circle route we would have to change our bearings constantly, so as a result what we really did is to take the loxodromic route at intervals, varying our bearings once or twice a day. (Note: the loxodromic route follows a constant bearing course. If you were to maintain a loxodromic bearing over a long distance, you would travel in a spiral). That was settled then. Once outside the Mona Passage, first North, then we set our course.
We set off at 7.15 am. We should have left two hours earlier but … everyone had another two hours of sleep, also because we had around 3,000 miles to cover and two hours didn’t really make any difference.
11.04 am. Pos 18°10’759N 68°30’850W Log 23636,5 Rb44
13.30 am. Pos 18°26’400N 68°21’683W Rb41°
A 20-knot breeze from the East blew us on our way and sailing was wonderful. We made our way to the first waypoint, and there we would luff 30° and head Rb15° due East of the Bermudas (our second waypoint) in order to sail to the Azores.
Sunday, 14 April
12.00pm. Pos 21°54’033N 68°29’697W Log 23866 Rb 15°
We covered 207.65 NM since yesterday and since we set off 245.5 NM
The sails consist of a Genoa jib, staysail, and 2/3 spanker. It was early morning, Miles with his How Deep is the Ocean made us fly.
15 April Monday
12.00 pm. pos 25°23’584N 68°08’323W log 24098
In the last 24 hours covered 210 NM and from Saona 455 NM
16 April Tuesday
12.00 pm. Pos 28°09’34N 66°12’14W log 24295 Rb48°
We had to switch on the engine, as the wind had died down for a few hours. Then soon after a series of squalls abruptly occurred with strong winds and thundery downpours to be followed by amazing double rainbows, marvelous to behold.
Everything went smoothly, a bit wet but fine.
This is the wonderful thing about sailing, as you live through all the elements and events as they happen, with no compromise or chance to do anything else. It rains and you get wet, water splashes over you and you get wet. You finish your watch with salt-laden face and hands, and all the time you think how lucky you are to enjoy so much natural beauty.
17 April Wednesday
12.00 pm. Pos 30°49’24N 64°20’69W log 24484 Rb 46° 1809 NM to Horta (Faial Island– Azores)
18 April Thursday
Pos 32°28’556N 61°29’743W Covered 187 NM in 24 hours of which 173 NM of real progress.
The moon, at last, the first quarter. We could see where we were going at night, not a bad thing when you’re at the helm. Some photos of the crescent moon, good idea. Creative snaps… done by moving the camera while taking the photos, which draws figures. Sort of fun. I tried to draw the letter F.
19 April Friday
Pos 32°39’71N 58°54’10W Rb 85° Covered 130 NM of which 120 of real progress made.
Since Saona 1,145 NM and 1,510 NM left to Horta.
The high pressure continued, we no longer had an internet connection, of course. We started to think that the high and low pressure did not occur as forecast on the maps on the day we left. The pressure remained high at 1,027 mb. High pressure stayed despite the fact that in the first few days we headed N pushing into the low-pressure pockets.
20 April Saturday
Pos 34°00’00N 57°00’00W Rb 70°
We entered bang into the middle of one of the high pressure pockets, and the barometer read 1,030 mb.
Covered 124 NM of which 118 miles of real progress.
The wind continued to be fair although the direction was not the one we hoped for. We had to keep sailing close to the wind which meant we sailed at an inclination, placing the vessel and contents under great stress, not to mention the crew, trying to stay upright and getting thrown from one side to the other of the boat. We were starting to feel tired. Morale was still high despite the fatigue. However, the beauty of sailing made up for everything.
21 April Sunday
Pos 35°37’410N 54°54’00W Rb 50° pressure Mb 1029,6. Totally becalmed…
Covered 142 NM of which 128 real progress towards our destination.
Covered 1,412 NM from Saona and 1,264 Nm left to Horta.
22 April Monday
Pos 36°36’55N 52°33’54W Rb97°
Covered 128 NM of which 124 miles of real progress.
23 April Tuesday
Pos 36°37’56N 49°27’90W
We had 4 days and nights of strong winds. The wind gauge never went below 45 knots and easily rose to 65 knots in two of these days. We got together and decided that the waves varied between 5 and 8 metres, allowing for 10-15% sailors’ exaggeration. Rather like the beginning of a story… “It was a dark and stormy night…”.
It was the first time that I had sailed for a long time in such strong winds and above all between high-walled waves that buffeted the ship and swelled towards you. It was bearable by day, but on my first night watch I started to feel extremely tense half an hour before my turn, which I would call fear. The thought of going on the watch in these conditions, with the waves breaking over the ship, filled me with dread. I was trembling inside. But here we were, it was my turn. Everything vanished inside me and the sole thought was to steer the boat and my 4 companions through a part of the night. The goal replaced fear, and only the initial tension remained which slowly faded away and I could start to enjoy the moon, the waves and the whistling wind. We were still sailing close to the wind (and we would do so until the end of the voyage) and this made the boat rock even more, as though it were to break up any moment now. But She, the lady, was strong and offered us shelter. I got soaked at the helm by the crashing waves and the squalls and the three hours were never-ending. When the wind was strongest we put up the storm sail, while the others were furled. Despite this we still did between 7 and 8.60 knots. Fear was a good companion before and after the event, never during. Fear, not terror, made us consider everything and be prepared.
24 April Tuesday
Pos 36°37’56N 49°27’90W rb 115° Mb 1025
Covered 149 NM of which 145 real progress.
Covered 1,689 NM from Saona and 995 to go to Horta.
25 April Thursday
Pos 35°55’37N 47°01’81W Mb 1031
Full Moon, we sailed on a silver streak and everything was floodlit. Absolutely marvellous. But freezing!! It was like this for the next few days. High pressure brings arctic winds.
The wind and rough seas finally stopped. Just as well, as we really couldn’t take it anymore. But sailing means all this too, slowly reaching your limits, feeling miserable, but coping and eventually regaining all your energy. It’s funny how even when you’re tired it doesn’t take much to get your strength back.
Dolphins appeared from time to time by day and we came across turtles swept by the current, and jellyfish we had never seen before, like Portuguese caravels. A tiny body, with an oval crest, the sail, that shows above the surface of the water. I was told they produce a virulent sting, so mustn’t be touched, and despite their small bodies they have extremely long tentacles. This was by day and by night we were amazed by the tons of fluorescent plankton. As the boat pitched they lit up the wake and sea spray. Moon in the sky and fluorescent plankton in the water. No wonder we were astonished.
27 April Saturday
Pos 35°49’69N 38°13’75W Rb 105° Mb 1007
28 April Sunday
Pos 36°16’60N 35°16’60W Rb 82° Mb 1011,5
Since yesterday covered 152 NM all real.
Covered 2,550 NM from Saona and 334 left to Horta.
29 April Monday
Pos 37°45’90N 32°12’45W Rb85° Mb 1016,5
Covered 160 NM of which 159 real progress.
Only 334 NM left to Horta.
At last we could start to smell land, the weather wasn’t great, and we would arrive at the first stop by the next day.
30 April Tuesday
Pos 38°28’60N 29°31’17W Rb95° Mb1021,5
Covered 133 NM all real.
There were only 42 NM to go, but the low visibility prevented us from seeing Faial. We couldn’t wait to see it as we would have a few good beers at Peter’s bar when we got there.
19.30 We arrived at Horta. Strong wind, above 35N, which forced us to sail close-hauled along the island’s coast-line and then out again, to head straight back into port.
Covered 3,055 miles, or 5,688Km, an average of 169 NM a day.
We manoeuvred the sails and docked the “English way” (meaning parallel to the quay). Wonderful sail manoeuvres. Silence of the wind.
Once we had docked, just half an hour later we were finally sitting in Peter’s bar, and although the ground was still swaying under our feet (this happens after a long time at sea), we still managed to down 3 beers and a super hamburger with eggs and chips, followed by a huge sandwich each, then washed down by more beer.
When you arrive, or rather land, your friends on the island who are expecting you and are watching the harbour entrance come to give you a hand with the lines. It’s a fantastic moment of human generosity. It’s what everybody imagines is the Encounter, with a capital “E”. As soon as you have got off the boat everyone hugs you and you love hugging them too. Those hugs say everything and there is no need for words, which are replaced by back-slapping. They will have a meaning later.
Peter’s bar is the sacred place for ocean travelers. It’s the place where everyone first gets together to talk of their experience after their voyage. They swap stories, laugh, drink, indeed, it’s like one big party. The bar is tiny, smelling of sea yarns and fine wood, the walls covered in photos and various boat banners. There is a wonderful party mood. People toast and look at one another happily, and between former strangers that have become friends the compliments fly. Words describe the episodes and the memories of huge walls of water are dispelled. Yet, above all…, everyone yearns for the second shower after 17 days and a good sleep without being rolled around in bed, without the accompanying sounds.
Here in Horta I know the legendary Erminio, who is from Parma and has lived on the Island for over 15 years. He’s a fine character, an explorer, walker, maker of documentaries, and a naturalist who loves this Island and has become a regular feature on it. As he describes himself, he is from outside, but at an extremely high level. He is candor itself, looking like a crusty seaman with his head of curly hair, beard and red k-way hood, but also like one of those people who immediately understands you, and if he likes you, after 2 minutes you are fondly welcomed into their world. The type of affectionate welcome that only people who have lived life to the full are able to give.
I took two days off with Toni to go round Faial, and the Azores are spectacular.
Another wonderful adventure is over. Or rather, it has just started.