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Carry on up the Tiber

Richard Cowper braves winter storms to sail the length of Italy in a 49 foot yacht, visiting over a dozen islands and several volcanoes on the way

The storm off the west coast of Italy unleashed its full fury just before sunset. The Tyrrhenian sea became a mass of raging white froth and the biggest waves well above 12 feet smashed ominously over the top of the bows of our 49 foot yacht.

At least we were within a few miles of apparent safety, with the tower at the entrance to the Porto di Roma just visible through the spray. We radioed in to book a berth for the night. Back came the answer:

“There is no room. Please go elsewhere!”

Lady Clarabo was nearly out of diesel and the prospect of riding out a Force 7/8 gale at sea under reefed sails or bare poles, was a daunting one. A quick look at the chart showed that the only other possible safe mooring within an hour’s sail was next to a small island in a river just to the north. We hardly had time to notice its name, just that if we kept to the middle of the channel it should be deep enough.

As we approached the estuary in the howling wind now gusting over 35 knots we switched on our engine and took down our heavily reefed mainsail, nervously lining up Lady Clarabo with the centre of the opening to the river.

We could just make out two great jagged piles of rocks jutting out either side of the entrance and watched in trepidation as the waves crashed one after another into the shallower waters across the river’s mouth.

The storm seemed to reach fever pitch as our yacht literally surfed towards the river on the top of a giant roller. From directly behind came an even faster and bigger wave. It crashed right over the stern, onto me and Carlo Lai, my Sardinian companion. We clung to the wheel for fear of being swept overboard.

Lady Clarabo had been broached and, for a fleeting moment, we feared we might sink.

Thanks to our tremendous turn of speed and the low-slung U-shaped stern of our Bavaria yacht, most of the water poured straight back out again and we carried on surfing out of the raging sea, right into the heart of the river itself.

Suddenly all was calm and we were floating free. We looked at each other in disbelief.

We had made it!

On either side of the river bank were giant overhanging fishing nets and the occasional boatyard. As darkness descended and we glided slowly up the river we were hailed by a giant of a man on the quay: “Welcome to the River Tiber,” he bellowed.

“People have been sailing up here for more than two thousand years. What a day you chose to come. Why not moor up right here?”

Spending the night in the Porto Romano on one of Italy’s most famous rivers had not been part of our winter plan to sail the length of the west coast. But I could think of no place I would rather be for it offered excellent protection in foul weather.

Carlo and I had begun our voyage ten days before aiming to to sail over 550 nautical miles, calling in on as many volcanoes and islands as possible on the way. We set off in Odysseus’ foosteps, from Reggio di Calabria on the south-western tip of Italy at dawn in mid-October after paying homage to the two great Greek bronze statues of Riace, found in 1972 in the nearby Ionian sea and now in the port’s delightful museum.

We sailed northwards through the busy Straits of Messina and as the sun rose behind us we caught a glimpse through the haze of fiery Mt Etna (3,323m) on the eastern coast of Sicily. It was the first of four famous volcanoes that we were to see on our journey: Vulcano, Stromboli and Vesuvius all but the last still active.

Later that morning between Scilla and Charybdis at the northern end of the Straits, mentioned by Homer over 2,700 years ago in the Odyssey*, we passed close to a dangerous whirlpool. I was glad not to be in a smaller craft for Carlo told me, at length and with much agitation, how he had nearly capsized in a 21-foot yacht four years before when he had encountered an even bigger whirlpool in the same area.

Our first stop in the Tyrrhenian sea was in the Aeolian islands, named after Aeolus, the Greek God of the Winds. Each of the seven islands has its own character and warm-weather sailors can spend a delightf fortnight cruising between them in the summer.

We moored up first off Vulcano, a strange and forbidding island and the source of the word volcano. Here ancient Greeks believed was the very entrance to Hades itself. I descended into the sulphurous and active heart of the Gran Cratere and five hours and 13km later I managed to extract myself when Carlo picked me up at the tiny southern port of Gelso.

We sailed on in dark blue seas to Lipari, the capital, where we spent the night on this the largest of the Aeolians with its thousands of small fishing boats, excellent restaurant - Da Fillipo’s and stunning castle museum, which covers over 8,000 years of archeological history in enthralling detail. Here the funerary urns and painted Greek vases are second to none in the Mediterranean.

The next day saw us sail to modest and homely Salina and on to Panarea, the most chic of the Aeolians, with its immaculate powder blue and white villas and the stunning Hotel Raya. “If you are rich and you are looking for ‘sex, drugs and rock ’n roll’ of the sophisticated kind, this is the place,” said Carlo, “though not as good as the Costa Smeralda”.

By now Carlo, who comes from Cagliari, had established himself as a stalwart companion. He gave a slide show of the day’s photographs every evening, was prepared to sail day or night and allowed me to run the boat by myself whenever the mood took me.

You might think that running a 49 foot yacht by yourself would be tricky. But with the judicious use of the auto-pilot, self-winding sails and a hand-held Geonav-4c global positioning system (GPS)** it was usually fairly straightforward. Only long watches and entering and leaving port made more than one person essential.

Carlo’s only weak-point was that no place we visited, however beautiful or unique, would stand comparison with the perfections of Sardinia. But this was a small price to pay for someone brave enough to sail up the Tiber in a storm and who at a moment’s notice was prepared to cook a delicious three-course Italian meal with local wine and expresso.

That night we anchored off the island of Stromboli, the most northerly of the Aeolians, and watched the awesome red glow of its live volcano - what Mediterranean sailors refer to as the ‘oldest lighthouse in the world’.

At 3am we awoke with a last look at Stromboli’s firework display and the delightful lighthouse on nearby Strombolicchio and promptly sailed for 16 hours through the night, non-stop to Capri an island paradise beloved of Roman emperors and 20th century film-stars.

I was keen to see if this haven in the bay opposite Naples where Lord Nelson fell in love with Emma Hamilton was still the exclusive destination of Europe’s super-rich. After surviving the hordes of day-trippers from Naples I retreated to lunch by the iconic kidney-shaped pool at the immaculate Grand Hotel Qvisisana.

Later I was offered two perfect Burmese ruby earings at Chanticler’s, the famous jeweller’s nearby, for a mere Euros800,000.

After paying our port fees for the night (200) we sailed next day to the island of Ischia in deteriorating weather. Vesuvius was no longer visible across the great bay of Naples as we steered well clear of a spiralling mini-tornado. With its imposing castle mount and delicious portside restaurants Neapolitans favour Ischia as a less expensive alternative to Capri.

We sailed early the next morning for the long run to the unspoilt isle of Ponza, whose red light guided us away from the Forniche rocks during a stormy arrival in the dark. The winds got up so so high in the night that the anchor dragged and we were forced to tie up on the quay outside the carabinieri’s office. No-one seemed to mind.

The weather was so bad that all ferries were cancelled, but this did not deter us.

Just 36 hours later we headed off to experience the most perfect day’s sailing of the trip: 25 knots of wind on a broad reach, ending with a late-afternoon storm and our nail-biting arrival on the outskirts of Rome.

The next evening saw us sail into the sweet harbour of Giglio at sunset. With its twin entry light-towers and myriad pleasure craft friends say the island has hardly changed in 35 years.

So at last back to the mainland near Pisa and our final destination, the magnificent new yacht haven of Castiglioncello located in the holiday resort made famous by the great Italian actor Marcello Mastroianni.

We had been away from home for just 12 days, not the six long years that Odysseus had whilst he was battling the gods in his attempt to return from the Trojan wars. But we had enountered our own whirlpools, squalls, and trials - albeit on a far less heroic scale.

*The Odyssey; Homer Oxford World Classics. OUP 1980 ** Global Positioning System (GPS): GeoNav 4c;

Richard Cowper sailed in the 49’ Bavaria charter yacht Lady Clarabo provided by Cosmos Yachting and flew with Air Italia. Cosmos Yachting has bases in Italy, France, Greece, Croatia, Turkey, Balearics, Seychelles, South Pacific, Thailand and the Caribbean. Its main offices are in Athens, London and Munich and can be visted at stand N1712 at the London Boat Show. Contact: 00442088780880 or

Italian Waters Pilot: Rod Heikell;Imray, Laurie, Norie & Wilson; 1998; (01480462114) Wet weather sailing clothes: Musto;; 01268495830 London International Boat Show; Docklands; January 6-16; Customs House for Excel on Docklands Light Railway; (08700600246) Hotel Raya 090983013; info@hotelraya.itHotel Qvisisana 0818370788; Chantecler 0818370544;