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  • Writer's pictureTiago Bertalot

Crossing to Italy, Storms

"Sailing is an activity not appropriate to imusers. In many professions, one can delude and bluff with impunity. On a boat, we know it or not. Ac of the cheaters. The ocean is merciless."

Eric Tabarly (own traduction)

In the last days of September, we decided to leave Spinut Bay, near Split, towards Dubrovinik and finally crossing to Italy. With us we had the company of another sailboat with Brazilian friends doing a similar route. This trip would take around 3 or 4 days sailing 5 hours a day and stopping at night to rest. Where still in Necujam Bay, we anchored very close to a schooner and at night we almost crashed on it's swimming plataform, I had to start the engine at 3 am to push the boat forward and take some current out of the water, avoiding the collision. This would be the first in a string of sleepless nights. For two weeks we were beaten daily by bad weather with lot's of wind, rain and several other unforeseen events that slowed our trip. Yes, sailing is not only about sunny days and pina coladas.

Catabatic winds at Zuliana

After a little over a week we arrived in Dubrovinik, southern Croatia, soaking wet, exhausted and a little frustrated. The last 8-hour sailing was preceded by another poor night's sleep and throughout the day we were punished by strong catabatic winds (winds that descend the valleys of the Balkans and furiously reach the sea) mainly during the passage through the bay of Zuliana. We anchored late afternoon on the Rijeka-Dubrovaka river, alongside other Brazilian friends who were coming from the opposite direction, to winterize in Croatia. At night we had a party, chatting, eating a pie and drinking wine - a great dinner despite the fact that it was raining once again.

Bura, the terrible

We woke up and our friends were no longer there, they left very early to enjoy the beautiful day that was supposed to come, later we learned that they faced the Zuliana's anger. During that week Croatia's most feared wind was forecast, the Bura (which in Croatian means storm). The speed record for this wind occurred in 2012 at an incredible 248km/h (134kts), my pilot-book said that in the region we were in there was little protection for the Bura and that you can expect hurricane speeds along this river. Wrong place to be on a 40-foot sailboat with the family. For the tenth time, we took one more look at the weather and decided it was time to finally leave for Italy. We had come and gone in this decision many times over that morning.

Suffering from the fatigue of sleepless nights, anxious to arrive soon in Italy and stop the boat after an end of season with storms, unforeseen events and breaks, added to the complacency of analyzing the weather over and over again (getting used to what we saw ) Slowly we undermined our ability to see things clearly, disregarding the right thing to do: wait. Find a corner and hide from Bura for 1 day, 1 week or 1 month, after all. Why the rush if we don't have a schedule? - Well, if we could make mistakes, we made it!

Fresh tuna

On the morning of October 10th, we left without wind and with sparse and short waves that made the boat rock continuously, all this was expected. The crossing to Italy from Dubrovinik to Brindisi is a 130 miles, which we estimated to make in 24 hours. We would use the engine for the first 6 hours and sail the rest. The water and diesel tanks were full and we prepared a meal which we managed to eat in the early afternoon, just 3 hours after our departure. Right after lunch we were surprised to see a schoal of tuna jumping out of the water, there were many and we thought about putting the bait in the water but what would we do if we caught those tuna fish? We laughed at ourselves because - we don't even know how to bring them to the boat, imagine killing, cleaning and storing! We left the fishing rod stored quietly on the deck and not to run any risk of catching a fish!

By late afternoon we were surrounded by many storms from north to south, heading southwest it was still possible to see the sky. On VHF radio, Croatia's weather broadcasting

Tempestades por todos os lados

reported: sparse storms with heavy rain, 12kts winds and 20kts gusts. It was another one of the warnings we disregarded and perhaps the last in time to step back. Storms began to haunt our boat. The sea, which was no longer calm, began to grow rapidly and the wind the sooner was not showing its face, appeared in fury gusts. By now we had the engine working a small part of the jib open, following the exact course to Brindisi, Zeus was slowly preparing himself for what would come next.

Night Call

With nightfall, the wind finally came on 16kts and gusts of 40kts. Storms were now circling much closer to the boat and those waves that were predicted to be 1.2m were taller than our bimini, perhaps

over 2m and in indistinct directions. A beautiful but shy moonlight appeared and was soon gone, covered by thick layers of clouds. Darkness enveloped the boat, which now shuddered as the water passed over the side of the hull as it descended the walls of the waves. The children were in one of the cabins trying to rest, which was difficult with the rocking without a defined direction and the noise of the water against the hull I also tried to sleep but I couldn't. I surrendered to Mariana on the beggining of the night shift, so she went downstairs to warm up and get some sleep. When picking up the lifeline, I saw thru her eyes that she was restless, in addition to everything we were still crossing the ship-lane, an "avenue" of large cargo and cruise ships.

I sa, leaning in a corner of the cockpit trying to avoiding the splash of water that insisted on crossing the boat, flying from one side to the other. Around midnight we received the broadcasting from Bari that gave us information of a strong squalls, with 50kts winds and 5m to 6.5m waves right just in front of us. On the VHF we could hear ships being informed that the ports of Bari and Monopoli were closed due to bad weather. To our surprise, we were then called by radio:

- Trouble Maker, this is the freighter xxxx

- Continue freighter, this is Trouble Maker

- I'm going to maneuver to the portside, keep your course and your speed, i'il let you know the end of the maneuver

- Understood

With the sea already big, Trouble was from 2kts going up to the crest of the waves to 11kts descending to the trough, I was in doubt and almost asked: freighter, what speed you want from me? He maneuvered and left, we passed many other large ships, but only this one called us, holy AIS!

My mind against me

At the first light of the day, I could see my real situation: the sea was thick with high waves that came from the north, taking us on our the side and making the whole boat shake violently, there was a lot of salt water spray that formed a wet fog around us. The wind was now 35kts

and Trouble Maker followed its course with difficulty but not fading. Inside the boat things were starting to get chaotic, everything was bumping and even the living room bench jumped out of place, tearing a floor board along with it. Even on the worst forecast there was not any indicative of such bad conditions, we were in the middle of a storm and our choices were limited.

I felt frustrated, I was afraid and wished not to be there. I felst small in my plastic boat, surrounded by the furious and relentless nature, I closed my eyes and tried to calm down thinking about something different, but it was just impossible, soon the noise of the boat at sea came to remind me that no one can escape their own reality. My mind started to work against me, telling me to be quiet and let things happen on their own. Not! This is all part of the learning - down there were 3 people who depended on me, they believe in me. We were 3 hours away from our destination and the weather was still getting worse at every mile sailed.

...2 children?

Big waves started breaking rolls, I thought it wouldn't happen in the open sea, but it does. As I tried to avoid diving into those coils and at the same time maintain a course that was suitable, I realized it might not be possible enter to Brindisi on a small boat in these conditions. And if not? If they wouldn't let us in? What would be the alternative? - these and many other questions jumped in my tired and frustrated mind. Would I have to head to Albania with waves of more than 5m? How much fuel did I have? What am I doing here?

At 1 hour out of the port entrance, we called Brindisi port station to advise of our position and intentions. I noticed a certain uneasiness in the radio operator's voice:

- Brindisi Radio, Trouble Maker, over

- Prossiga Trouble Maker, aqui é o porto de Brindisi

- Somos um barco a vela de 12m, tripulação de dois adultos e 2 crianças, pretendemos entrar no porto em 1 hora, sem condições de mudar nosso rumo devido as condições do mar.

- .... repita, 12m? Tripulação de 2 adultos e... 2 crianças?

- Afirmativo, over

The decisive hour has arrived! Authorized by the port operator, we follow our course. At this point, the raging sea had already dropped two wave rolls onto our deck, the wind had finally dropped to 25kts and with difficulty, due to the fog formed by the spray of the waves, I managed to see a huge breakwater that was covered by giant water rollers and at its end the entrance to the port which was nothing less than frightening.

Nothing to fear

At these times the same mind which has been working against you awakens in courage, releasing the adrenaline that takes over everything, would it be the survival instinct? The entrance was there, the green and red beacons in front of us appeared and disappeared in the balance of our boat, throttles forward, rudder firmly in my hands, nothing can stop us! - we entered, we made it!!! I felt a relief that I have never experienced before. My body went numb with calm, the noise no longer worried me. I, my boat, my little crew had nothing more to fear, we were safe at last.

Days later, talking to some experienced sailors here, I understood how risky it was to go out in that condition, where the winds that come from the Balkans blow for days raising the sea and creating

Ventos dos Balcãns

unpredictable storms. Here on the boat, around the table and safely docked at the marina, we debriefed everything we've been through, the things we need to improve and the things we've done right.

In the end, I was very proud of the children who remained calm and obeyed all our safety rules, always helping with what they could, I was proud of Mari who was once again a companion and courageous even when things didn't go so well, but me....

If you come to the sea like us, you need to be prepared. Our boat faced many hours of bad weather and remained almost intact, we had a water leak and a few things got out of place, nothing that affected our safety. We used everything we knew to get around the situation, knowledge, preparation and knowing how to react in adverse moments are fundamental.

If you'd like to genuinely discuss life onboard and experiences like the one above, don't hesitate to get in touch!


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1 Comment

Melanie Dillard
Melanie Dillard
Mar 05, 2022

Thanks for sending your blog Tiago and Marianna. We arrived in Brindisi the morning of the 10th having sailed over night on the 9th. Trying to avoid that north wind! We know very well what your weather was like as we were thanking our lucky stars to be safely tied up that night. Always a learning experience :). Glad you made it safely in and glad we made some great new friends!!


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