Between sea and sky, Milanto’s long journey from Fiji to Lombok

When we left at the beginning of January, from the island of Saint Lucia in the Caribbean, our world tour was to be a dream made real, together with many people who would share with us in one or more of the routes within the World ARC. This was the only way to cover the costs of such a demanding journey. Many of these people were friends, others acquaintances Valerio and I had made over the years through the world of sailing, and others had contacted us through various British organisations. With the advent of the pandemic, when we arrived in French Polynesia at the end of March, the project took a totally different turn. The World ARC was suspended, the companions we had on board were gradually repatriated and some who had managed to reach us just before the lockdown in Polynesia were blocked as soon as they landed at the airport in Papeete. A new journey had begun for us: a long return home. A real Odyssey because the borders of the Pacific states were closed and boats arriving from the sea were not accepted, sometimes even rejected. Almost all the other boats travelling west had stopped, some finding refuge in Polynesia, some in Fiji. Some had embarked on the onerous transport of shipping their boat back to their country of origin. The oceans had been emptied of a large number of sailboats that cross them every year along the trade wind route.

Full moon at sunset sailing to Australia
Full moon at sunset sailing to Australia

Why did Milanto continue its journey? For several reasons: the first because we still have a Spanish skipper on board who is determined to continue the world tour; secondly because other friends are determined to join us to fulfill their long-planned dream; and because we sincerely think that the problems of the Covid pandemic will be resolved sooner or later; finally, we were hesitant to leave Milanto in a Pacific port without knowing when we would be able to return to restart the journey due to closed borders, plus the risk of winter hurricanes can be devastating at these latitudes. But above all, if we had stopped, our dream – shared with all those people who like us still continue to believe in it – would have ended.

Aware of the difficulties we were facing – not only due to the many travel expenses, but also because the passage would become more demanding with a reduced crew, and without the possibility of stopping over in countries that had closed their borders – we decided to go ahead; with conviction in continuing with this long adventure, even in these times of contagion and with the hope of a forthcoming opening of international flights, that would allow our travel companions to reach us.

Malawaki Bay, Yasawa Islands, Fiji
Malawaki Bay, Yasawa Islands, Fiji

This is how we set sail from Malawaki Bay – a pristine stretch of sea surrounded by a mountainous coast rich in vegetation, in the Yasawa archipelago, in the Fiji Islands – on the morning of Sunday, 16th August with the bow pointing to the west. We sailed with only the genoa, in 5-6 knots with a carrying wind that pushed us along brilliant waves under the rays of the sun. We hoisted the mainsail and poled-out the genoa only the following day, when we were in the open ocean and the trade winds began to blow steadily. We threw out our fishing line and in a few hours we caught a tuna that served us for three dinners in the following days. On Tuesday we had a busy night due to the continuous changes of wind that forced us to manoeuvre constantly, even upwind on both tacks. We were dead tired when the morning arrived but the wind settled, the sea relaxed and the sky cleared so that we could rest for a while. During those long days I read a lot. I had several books that I had downloaded on a kindle, especially the kind of literature that I would normally put aside due to the lack of time, or for a thousand reasons related to everyday life and work needs. The list included the most recent Italian and American fiction, some gaps that for a long time I wanted to fill in, and something in the original language to perfect my written English. Often in the afternoon I played a few songs on the guitar, positioning myself on the bow, my stage for a concert dedicated to the sea fish. At night I wrote about new projects, new ideas, or listened to music on the headphones (the phenomenal compilation of my friends at Controradio!) I took my night shifts sitting in the cockpit under a sky that looked like a cloak of stars, as in Giotto’s frescoes at the Scrovegni. Some moonless nights I stopped counting the shooting stars that I saw darting over my eyes, but I always reserved the same desire for each one.

Our watch shifts for this passage
Our watch shifts for this passage

Saturday 22nd, in broad daylight while we sailed happily in 7 knots with a fresh wind, our fishing line was brutally torn by who knows what monster of the sea, even the buzzer on the rod broke forcing us to continue fishing with a long line that ran all the way below deck and was tied to a snorkel that would rocket up the companionway when the fish bit. With this improvised system we were able to catch two wahoo, not really delicious (we tried to cook them in all sauces), but important sources of protein for us.

The coast of one of the Vanuatu islands
The coast of one of the Vanuatu islands

In the following days we passed through the archipelago of the Vanuatu islands with the sadness of not being able to stop and visit them, because all boats were banned by the local government due to the restrictions of the pandemic. We did not see anyone on the green and wild coasts. Only a rusty fishing boat that we spotted with binoculars that passed us at a distance of a few miles; it was not even present on the AIS, the satellite signalling system that all boats sailing in the open sea have. Continuing towards the southern coast of Papua New Guinea, we saw on our on-board computer several AIS signals stationary in the middle of the ocean, they were not ships, but location signals that probably served Chinese fishing boats, or perhaps they were buoys that provided weather information. But how did they stay motionless in a sea floor that is 4,000 metres deep?

Sailing to Papua New Guinea
Sailing to Papua New Guinea

The wind picked up and the sea got bigger too. We now sailed with more than 20 knots at the stern and waves that exceed two meters. The most up-to-date forecasts gave a substantial increase of up to 35 knots along the route we were following. We had to make decisions considering several variables: the closed Australian borders that did not allow us to stop for an intermediate stage; and also for Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea, whose coasts are at risk of piracy. We decided to grit our teeth and carry on towards the north entrance of the Torres Strait, in Bramble Cay. This is also what Bob, our Australian router who provided us with customised weather models suggested.

Sailing towards the Torres Strait
Sailing towards the Torres Strait

The day of Wednesday, 26th August began with a series of showers that poured buckets of rain on us. The wind strengthened and in a few minutes it grew up to 50 knots, Force 8: an unexpected cold front was passing over us and unloaded all of its violence on the stretch of sea we were crossing. The waves became walls of water and the howling wind swept breakers over the boat creating horizontal showers that whipped at our oilskins. We reduced the sail by completely lowering the mainsail and leaving only a handkerchief of a jib with which we could steer, keeping the boat straight and in the hollow of the waves. In these moments the greatest risk that we must avoid is the boat swinging across the waves, being rolled to one side and capsizing. Fortunately, the front passed quickly, leaving us with 30 knots of wind and a sea that was still very rough, but far more manageable.

We began to consider moving closer to the coast of Papua New Guinea where the wind and sea seemed to decrease in order to find some shelter. Fortunately, the sun accompanied us in the following days and sailing in a Force 7 became almost a habit in the daily life of the boat where everything moved as if inside a washing machine. Helming was thrilling as the waves crashed under the hull which then surfed at racing speed. At night, filled with adrenaline that banished away any tiredness, I was seized by a strange euphoria, that I started singing in the darkness in front of nowhere, as a liberation from all the problems that the pandemic had brought us. I remembered the closest friends with whom I have been sailing for years, and how we would start singing at the top of our lungs in the middle of the sea, our secular prayer, the pact of our friendship. What I would have given to have them there with me to shout our will to live to the sky!

Sunset at Red Scar Bay
Sunset at Red Scar Bay

On Saturday, 29th August we passed Port Moresby and reached a bay with the pirate name of Red Scar Bay. We needed to stop for a few hours in a place sheltered from the waves, behind an islet, so that we could carry out some maintenance work. I went up to the masthead at sunset to free a line that had gotten caught and I found myself like Ciaula, the little boy from Pirandello’s novellas who discovers the moon by coming out of the mine. The immense sky ignited as I swayed like an upside down pendulum and I almost wanted to cry from the beauty that appeared before my eyes. The coast was deserted and wild, we could see the mouth of a river and we seemed to be like those brigantines of the past who stopped in unknown bays to make ‘acquata’ – take on a load of fresh water. We had dinner with a wahoo fillet each and left to cross the Gulf of Papua with a route heading for the Torres Strait.

Navigation in the Great North East Channel of the Torres Strait
Navigation in the Great North-East Channel of the Torres Strait

We entered the strait from the entrance of the Great North-East Channel at 4 am on Monday, 31st August and prepared to reduce the sails for when we would have to go through the Coral Sea; the treacherous turquoise sea with shallow waters that lies within the Great Barrier Reef along the Queensland coast in Australia. From the moment we began to sail close to the wind, the waves broke over the bow and swept the entire deckhouse with tons of water that soaked us as if we had dived under the sea every time. The wind increased to 30 knots going south west and we put three reefs in the mainsail and let out only a little of the genoa. Milanto kept running safely upwind while the bow pitched over the waves. At sunset I found myself at the helm while a very large sun plunged into the sea like a bow; a genuflection. And it made me think that we had just left the Pacific Ocean – where we had sailed in these last months, so strange and difficult for the whole world – to enter the Indian Ocean: the crossing between two sets of different cultures and civilisations, marked by a bright sun that majestically extinguished in the west towards Asia like the smile of a Buddha. At night we could finally rest as we entered the Prince of Wales Channel. At dawn we flowed out of the strait and into the favourable current of the Arafura Sea, that cradled Milanto, repaying it for holding up in the face of every adversity encountered so far. The next day, a beautiful sun and a strong stern breeze allowed us to dry our oilcloths soaked in saltwater, and to get the boat back on track and head to Indonesia.

The sunset of Asia
The sunset of Asia

Before leaving Fiji, we had considered making a stop in Darwin, in the northern territory of Australia, to be able to stock up on food and fuel. A simple 72hr transit stop – after about 2,500 miles of ocean – that we had requested from the Australian government’s Department of Home Affairs through the Italian embassy in Canberra. The embassy staff had done their utmost to aid us in this request through a long bureaucratic process made up of various formalities to be completed and numerous telephone contacts. We therefore left with the agreement that we would receive a positive response from the Australian authorities during our trip on Milanto’s satellite email. Unfortunately this was not the case, on the contrary, we received a request to fill in additional forms that were impossible for us to send with the satellite connection. We came to understand that Australia wants to discourage, in every way, the landing of foreign boats on its shores. The same for New Zealand, as well as most of the other Pacific states. Yet we, who come from covid-free territories such as Fiji, and from weeks of quarantine, sailing in the middle of the sea, are certainly the ‘healthiest’ people. Indeed it is we who paradoxically should be afraid every time we land in an infected territory. In any case, rejecting a boat that has sailed for thousands of miles in the ocean, forcing it to face a longer and decidedly more risky passage is a measure that we do not agree with. Finding yourself living this experience is frustrating and it is very sad to experience the fear of a great nation that bars all borders and closes itself inwardly like a hedgehog regardless of the first fundamental law of the sea: that of welcoming those who come from afar, in need of assistance after a long journey.

Out of the Strait in the Arafura Sea
Out of the Strait in the Arafura Sea

On Tuesday, 1st September we did a quick account of the food remaining and the fuel we had consumed, we had now been on the high seas for two weeks. We could make it: so we decided to bypass Australia and head directly to Indonesia. Marina del Ray in Lombok, the island next to Bali, had given us permission to dock. The weather forecasts looked good and we had enough wind to reach our destination after about 10 days. We went back to fishing with the hope of catching a good tuna, but it was in vain. Instead we noticed a large presence of various sea birds. They had already appeared since the Torres Strait – these territories are rich in wildlife, the coasts are infested with crocodiles and in the sea there are some of the most dangerous species on the planet, such as the famous box jellyfish whose contact can be lethal – but now this avifauna seemed to be particularly interested in our boat: some large birds had spent the night on Milanto to scrounge a few miles. It often happens in the ocean and by now we were used to making friends with some new passengers who sometimes remained perched on the forward pulpit for a few days in a row. But in the Arafura Sea we had a different, and at times disturbing experience. Day after day the presence of these birds became more and more numerous and annoying, one night we counted more than a dozen on the spreaders, on the deck, on the boom, in the cockpit, everywhere. And everywhere they left excrement in abundance! By the morning it was disgusting, we spent hours cleaning up the mess of this flying horde. Even during the day we were targeted: one resting on the radar, right above me, while I was reading quietly at the helm shit on my shoulder! Dammit! – I yelled at it brandishing my fist in the air – ‘but with all the sea at your disposal, you have to come and do it here!’ On the third night, exasperated by the confrontations with these terrible birds, we started the fight. Armed with a long boat hook we tried to prevent their landings. I saw myself as Phineus tormented by harpies as depicted on ancient Greek vase paintings showing the saga of the Argonauts! These birds were not afraid of anything and approached humans with courage and arrogance, emitting shrill cries of affront. But at some point we managed to push them away and the next day they never showed up again. But Coleridge teaches you that arguing with birds while at sea does not bring good luck. And so at some point, inexplicably, our autopilot stopped working. Surely it was the natural wear and tear on the device, but it took a day and a half to put it back on track, while the birds occasionally passed over our heads croaking their curse. At sea, everyone becomes a bit superstitious; when we spot schools of dolphins, we know they bring bad weather; it is forbidden to whistle while sailing because it calls a storm; you do not change the original name of boats as it brings bad luck. There are thousands of superstitions that still survive today in the seafaring culture. Now we also know about the one for the birds of the Arafura Sea. Let them deposit their excrement on your boat, sooner or later they will stop. This is the price to be paid to pass their kingdom unscathed! Believe it or not from the moment they disappeared our autopilot started working again and I mentally thanked the birds.

One of the terrible birds
One of the terrible birds

On Saturday, 5th September we entered the Timor Sea and continued sailing in good weather with a breeze that gradually decreased. By night, Mars shone along with a waning moon that seemed to accompany our journey benevolently. On Sunday, 6th September the wind dropped again and forced us to proceed using the motor. At night we spotted some fishing boats that did not appear on the AIS. It seemed that the Timorese fishermen only activated the recognition system if a collision was imminent. It therefore often happened that we would see fishing boats appear out of nowhere on the on-board computer, whose boat lights we had already identified a few miles away by peering into the night.

Sunset in the Timor Sea
Sunset in the Timor Sea

We continued slowly with little wind, trying to use every possible gust and putting on the engine only when we went below 5 knots of speed. The days followed one into the other, lazy and sunny, always ending with an evening spectacle of wonderful sunsets in front of our bow. We took turns cooking with our last reserves of food. I made bread, cooked legumes and risotto; while Amancio prepared delicious Spanish cuisine and Valerio drew from his precious on-board recipe book. We caught a tuna that we put in the oven with potatoes, a real treat that made me crave a glass of white wine. On Milanto we are alcohol free while sailing, a way to stay clearer, but we also use it as a detox period and by now we are used to it.

Dawn en route to Lombok, Indonesia
Dawn en route to Lombok, Indonesia

The last few days allowed us to fly the spinnaker and we headed fast towards destiny, as they say at sea. After all this time without news we didn’t know what awaited us in Lombok. Would the world still be as we left it? Could we travel free in Indonesia or would there be restrictions? And in Europe, in our home, what was happening? The coasts of the island were mountainous and barren with cliffs that plunged into the sea and rocky islets that emerged as sentries on guard. Entering the bay on the afternoon of Friday, 11th September we saw several pearl farms that we had to go around to reach the Marina del Ray, where we took a mooring buoy and hoisted the yellow flag waiting to clear customs with the local authorities. We had sailed non-stop for 26 days and tallied more than 3,700 nautical miles. I experienced that strange feeling of happiness, tiredness and a little melancholy that always surfaces at the end of a long journey. The sun set behind us and the songs and prayers of the muezzins echoed from the minarets. I stayed listening to them looking at the stars. Tomorrow we would go ashore and a new adventure would begin.

The south coast of Lombok
The south coast of Lombok
Milanto's route traced by Yellow Brick
Milanto’s route traced by Yellow Brick