July 30, 2017
As mentioned before, we needed to take Serafina out of the European Union, briefly, or face dire importation duties. So, after a pleasant five days in the marina near the Calabrian town of Roccella Ionica, we set out to make the 200-nautical mile trip to Saranda, Albania. A safe estimate for a trip like that is that we will make 5 knots on average, if we motor whenever the winds fails us, for a total expected time of 40 hours.
So, we left the afternoon of July 18, planning an early morning arrival after two nights at sea. It all went smoothly weather-wise, with the downside that we were going too fast and ran the risk of arriving in Saranda in the dark, which we didn’t want to do.
But the interesting thing was the shipping traffic, where the thoughts mentioned in the title of this post come in,
For those who don’t know, there is an enormous amount of commercial shipping traffic going on in the world. It has ups and downs with economic cycles, but even in the downs there are thousands of ships full of petroleum, natural gas, cars, wheat, and containers of everything imaginable. They are actually a major contributor to the carbon dioxide (and soot) in the atmosphere, often burning the cheapest and most toxic kind of “bunker” oil.
The drive for cheap labor has moved much manufacturing away from the centers of consumption – referred to as “globalization” – and cheap shipping is the key to the whole system. More specifically, it means that pinch points in the world’s oceans are superhighways for these ships, and traffic control is a challenge, as was seen when a cargo ship collided with a US Navy destroyer off the coast of Japan. Both of these ships were loaded with the latest of electronic equipment, and despite that the collision occurred. So far the evidence is that the US Navy destroyer ignored the basic, codified and internationally recognized “Rules of the Road” that required them to give way to the cargo ship on their starboard bow.
Well, you get that many multi-thousand-ton vehicles moving in a space with no white lines, and there are bound to be problems. One of the ways of trying to avoid the problems is the “Automatic Identification System,” (AIS) in which ships, and many smaller boats, transmit information on their position, course and speed, which appears as triangles on navigation screens. “Closest Point of Approach” (CPA) is calculated automatically. Radar is also available on these behemoths to pick up vessels (or objects, or shorelines) that don’t broadcast an AIS signal.
But someone has to be paying attention. As we approached the east side of the Strait of Otranto, with maybe 20 ships in the neighborhood, going in and out of the Adriatic, one 600 foot cargo ship seemed to be planning to run right over us. They were only three miles away, moving fast, and our calculated CPA went from zero to 200 feet. We clearly had right of way, being on their starboard bow. In some controlled traffic situations, for example at the entrance to busy harbors, big ships have right of way no matter what – but that’s not where we were. Where we were the Rules of the Road apply equally to rowboats and supertankers, and sailboats like Serafina.
Thanks to AIS we knew the name of the ship and called them on the radio. After politely explaining the situation and asking what they would like us to do (a kind of loaded question, since they were the ones required to do something), there was a silence from the ship, a kind of “Oops!” and they made the required right turn to go behind us, explaining that they were having problems with their radar. Most likely it was a problem with turning it on, or looking at it.
It was a lot like other examples we have seen of big ships basically bullying, or trying to intimidate, smaller vessels. In the intensely competitive shipping market, time is money, and course changes take time. This produces a change to the previously open character of the seas, where now fishing boats, small cargo vessels, and sailboats have to be on guard at all times, and often have difficulty planning a transit across the “pinch points” of marine traffic. After all, we wouldn’t even dent the bow of one of the superships.
We may add AIS to the list of our electronics in self-defense, but it would not overcome the problem of someone on the big ships having to pay attention. And it would be a sad step, away from the days of open seas, courtesy between mariners, and single-handed sailors sleeping their way across oceans. So be it, but I’m a little reminded of the employees of a Wisconsin “high-tech” firm who agreed to have chips implanted in their hands to open doors and pay for their snacks in the cafeteria. The logical next step would be to have these chips wired to provide an electric shock of graduated severity should the employee engage in risky, inappropriate or profit-damaging behavior. Paranoid? Well, maybe…
Anyway, we had two similar incidents on our way from Albania to Brindisi, Italy, crossing the same high traffic area.
But the time in Puglia (a region which includes the ‘bootheel” of Italy) was wonderful. It’s a deeply agricultural region, olive oil, wine, artichokes, tomatoes, eggplant, mushrooms and asparagus as key products. The relatively flat countryside is often beautiful and appears, at least compared to Sicily, to be quite prosperous. Puglia was settled by the Greeks at least 2,500 years ago, and some of the residents still speak a unique local language called “Griko.”
One of the more interesting features of the region is a zone of traditional dwellings, called (plural) trulli. An old method of construction for dwellings, animal shelters and storage, these stone buildings feature conical roofs made by drystone (no mortar) construction. The roofs have no central support, and rely on their arch-like character to keep them from falling in. They’ve been around since at least the early 1700s and are now the focus of a World Heritage site in the small town of Alberobello.
There are various theories about how this unique construction method evolved. Some think it was because the buildings could be easily disassembled when tax assessors showed up, but I’m more convinced it was because these were poor farmers and the materials were free. It is indeed a stony land.
In the Salento part of Puglia (aka Apulia) there is a lovely old town called Lecce, also of Greek origin, which boasts well preserved examples of Baroque excess.
And its only fair to mention that the special wines of the region, Primitivo, Negro Amaro and others, are wonderful, and shockingly cheap!
We had a wonderful, and virtually ship-free, sail from Brindisi to Roccella Ionica. Birgit got an exciting three hours of high speed, very splashy sailing during her late-night watch with 20 or so knots of wind on the beam. Serafina performed beautifully. We had wind from all directions during the 36 hour trip, and at one point were witness to a striking display of thunderstorm formation. A chain of clouds was coming down the Salento peninsula (the boot heel) as we were approaching the cape, and as they approached the sea, these gentle looking, lightly raining clouds transformed, one after the other, into huge, black violent thunderstorms. We hung back, letting them pass in front of us. Always a good choice, since lightning strikes can spoil your whole day.
Now we’re resting and relaxing in friendly Roccella Ionica, and will leave tomorrow for the 85 nautical mile sail to Catania. There goes July, pretty much, but we’ll be back in Sicily again!