Sailing into the cauldron

Strait of Messina.

10th March 2014
Scilla Italy
Scylla and the Strait of Messina


Sailing through the Strait of Messina.


The Strait of Messina

The Strait of Messina or Stretto di Messina in Italian is a very narrow strip of water between Italy and Sicily. It is renowned for its many navigational hazards, whirlpools and the odd sea monster or two.


Navigational hazards

Strait of Messina Map

Strait of Messina Map

The Strait of Messina has very strong tidal currents that vary massively producing eddies and a bubbling effect in the water known locally as Bastardi’s. I don’t think you need to translate that. It has natural whirlpool in the Northern portion of the strait that has been linked to the Greek legend of Scylla and Charybdis. In some circumstances, the mirage of Fata Morgana can be observed when looking at Sicily from Calabria. (This is a mirage that distorts boats, land and anything else into unrecognisable shapes). Add to that high winds funnelled between the mountains, a traffic lane in the centre for large boats you have to keep out of, ferries continually crossing your path and small fishing boats around the coast that just won’t move out your way.

The good news was the last major earthquake in the Strait of Messina was in 1908 when it took 123,000 souls, flattened the major towns and produced a tsunami wave of 39ft (12m).

It looked as though this would be a walk in the park then.


We had to go through early but was this too early?

As I mentioned in the previous blog, Tinkerbell and Cygnus III had a really bad night in Scilla with the swell and left early because we could not stand it any more. I had worked out that the tide would change at II am to flow in the direction we wanted to go. Before then it was against us. In places it was so strong we were liable to be swept backwards and spat back out.

Sailing Cygnus III down the Strait of Messina was not really an option for us. The winds were light and with the variable currents we did not want to be tacking the sails every few minutes. We would use the engine and hope we had the power to see us through. She had never failed us yet and this would be a bad place to start.


How many souls have you got aboard?

Strait of Messina confused waters

Strait of Messina confused waters

We got to the entrance about 10 am and decided to go down the Italian side rather than the Sicilian side with the whirlpool. Before entering we called up the Strait of Messina traffic control as you have to in order to let them know our intentions. They duly took our details although I was not impressed when they asked how many “souls” we had aboard. Did they know something I didn’t? They told us to stay close to the shore but as we were about to find out they must have been spitting their cappuccinos out with laughter or had never sailed a yacht through the Strait of Messina.


Hand steering

For once I had decided to hand steer the boat rather than use the auto pilot so I could feel what Cygnus III was doing and how she was coping.  Even before we got into the Strait proper we saw the water round us bubbling and popping. We were supposed to be against the tide but we were flying along at 7 knots. Tinkerbell had taken the lead as she had a more powerful engine in relation to the boat size and I was not objecting at all. By watching her it gave us chance to see what the current was doing further ahead of us.


Cygnus III was just not sure which direction to head in.

As we went through the Strait of Messina the current continually changed direction and was very strong. One minute we were being swept toward the shore but then we were being suddenly swept towards the centre. Watching Tinkerbell in front was strange as she was motoring at so many different angles to us even though we were not far behind. The speed of the boat to was all over. At some points we were motoring at 8 knots and at others we were down to 1 and 2 knots. I really wasn’t enjoying it at all.


Stuck in front of the ferries

swordfish boat

Swordfish boat

We then approached the main ferry port on Italy that crosses to Sicily. The entrance to it is probably 800m across as there are a lot of ferries using it. We could see them setting off from Sicily to come over and knew we had to stay out of their way. It was also here we had the strongest currents against us and Cygnus had slowed to 1 knot. It was as if we were stuck in mud right over the ferry entrance going nowhere. A bit like one of those nightmares where you try and run but nothing happens. The ferries were getting closer and closer but we just could not clear the entrance. We knew it was liable to happen but it was the worst possible place.

Eventually we had to give in, turn Cygnus III sideways to the current and were swept back to allow the ferries to get in. We got very close to the traffic separation scheme before trying again. This happened twice before we eventually crawled past the other side of the entrance. It was not a nice experience at all.

After the ferry terminal we were confronted by the Italian small boat fishing festival. They were everywhere in these little boats with big powerful engines trailing fishing lines about 100m behind the boats. They were also not going to move from our intended course so we had to weave our way through them.


Reggio Di Calabria

A street in Reggio

A street in Reggio

We were now near a large Italian city called Reggio Di Calabria and the Strait of Messina had opened up more making the current far more manageable. We had agreed to go in there with Tinkerbell as it was the furthest point we could sail together before going in opposite directions.

It is not the easiest marina to Med moor in with the winds but we managed to get in in a fashion (it was not my best bit of boat parking ever). It also meant we could get fresh supplies before my last dose of Tree brownies.

In working out the best time to go through we used a mobile app for the tides in the Messina Straits that was easy to read and accurate.

The Strait of Messina is certainly not something to be taken lightly. It was not a passage I can say I enjoyed but we got through, even though we set off at the wrong time. Later this year Cygnus III will go through the Strait of Messina again and hopefully I will be here to tell you just how bad it was.



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  1. Very interesting read Mark, my Dad was a soldier and was in Messina and crossed the Messina gap in a landing craft during the war!

    1. There is a huge history from during the war here so seeing it is amazing.
      I would certainly consider visiting Sicily as there is so much to see and the people are so friendly.

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