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Sicily, Malta and S Italy are normally visited in transit between the eastern and western Mediterranean. Take it slow through Sicily, though. Aim to spend at least two weeks cruising the north and east coasts to see the volcanoes and ancient sites. Include the Aeolian islands, not to be missed, even if overcrowded in high season. Marinas in S Sicily offer wintering bargains. Malta (EU) provides excellent wintering and yacht service facilities, and nearby Tunisia (outside EU) is good value for wintering and fuelling.
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Winds. In settled weather winds are light. The sunny season is long, mid April to October. Winter cruising during periods of settled weather is satisfactory, although the usual unsettled weather threat - of fierce winds - means that it's prudent to stay within short distance of shelter. Or have a strong crew and boat.
Harbours and Anchorages. Exposed anchoring is usually safe in settled weather, though short periods of swell may make your sleep uncomfortable. Peak season crowds create high marina prices, ranging from €40 to €120 a night for 12m. And there are eye-watering charges to tie to a quay in some of the Aeolian islands. There are enough harbours and anchorages around the area for easy day sailing/motoring, and, away from the peak season, berths are easier to find. Malta's many anchorages are just a 60nm hop to the south, though they are usually very busy just before the 'Middle Sea Race' in October (a 'round Sicily' race). Pantellaria and Lampedusa are interesting stops if you're passing by - perhaps to escape from the EU to Tunisia for some good value wintering. South Italy has two major marinas, but is otherwise a quiet coast with few anchorages, often passed at night en route for Corfu or the Adriatic.
A full circuit of Sicily could occupy four weeks. It's described clockwise from the west corner. Good airports for crew changes. The east coast offers some of the great sites (and sights) of the Mediterranean, and should not be missed. The Messina straits contain a Traffic Separation Scheme (TSS) with a 'roundabout' system to handle the cross straits ferry traffic. Pleasure vessels should plan routes to stay outside the TSS, but if it is necessary to enter, they must report their plan to the Coast Guard, Ch 10 or 16. Tidal currents flow through the straits, noted in ancient times for the whirlpools off Scylla and Charibdis. They're trivial compared to the tidal currents and eddies of N Brittany or NW Scotland.
Marinas. For a slightly out of date summary of nearly all marinas (of all standards) around Sicily, see http://en.sizilien-netz.de/173/Yachting-Sicily-ru.html . Below we only only list a sample of the more popular stops.
The West Corner (8/10) is cut with rock stacks, cliffs, caves, coves, beaches, quarries and anchorages. There's a lot of traffic in the area, and off Trapani Vessel Traffic Services (VTS) apply. The three Égadi islands are a protected nature reserve with an anchorage and several buoy fields, well worth a visit. In season a park ranger will turn up, tell you about prices and places to visit. Bouys are busy in season by day, quiet at night. The area is easily explored from Trapani marina, which is very good for winter lay-up ashore.
newSan Vito lo Capo, Castellammare del Golfo, Ballestrata and Terrasini are four pleasant small towns spaced about 10nm between Trapani and Palermo. Each has a leisure harbour enclosed by breakwaters. All have pontoons except Ballestrata (2015, not yet installed). Terrasini (5/10) is a very convenient small port for crew change, just west of Palermo airport, about 10km by road from the terminal.
Palermo. (3/10) Many people like this city - it does have a certain faded glory with some grand old buildings. But poverty shows through, with associated petty theft and a strong 'family' presence. The harbour is unpleasantly oily, smells, and is expensive. You are much better off using the marinas north of town, such as Marina Villa Igiea (at Aquasanta), or Yacht club berths just north at Aranella, or even the rather distant Termini Imaresi, well east. The international airport (10nm west of Palermo) is good for crew changes, with the port of Terrasini (free quayside, no facilities) just a short walk south.
Cefalu. (6/10) A delightful mediaeval town on the north coast, an astonishing contrast with Palermo, though much smaller. Anchor off and risk some swell, or use the quays at Porto Nuovo 1nm east.
Porta Rosa (3/10). A very well sheltered marina in a holiday complex, which is suitable for winter lay-up. It's expensive and very quiet outside the peak season, closing rather early, in September.
Milazzo. A busy town with 30,000 population. Ferry port, with good yacht support. Moorings off some beaches, and reasonable fair weather anchorages. There's a marina within the main port, and two sets of pontoons for leisure craft just north. Several ship yards along the beaches SW of the port are suitable for wintering ashore.
(9/10) The Aeolian islands are a "must visit" for incredible volcanic variety, in spite of peak season crowds. Anchorages here are rather exposed, so unless you've laid a running moor, you may need to be ready to move if a wind suddenly pops up from the wrong direction. Each year sees the addition of another tiny quay for yachts to moor to . . . but the prices for this facility may reach €100! Once you've read the broad picture below, you can see more detail about individual islands on this site.
Alikudi is the tiny westernmost outcrop of the Aeolian.
Filikudi, not quite so tiny, is primitive, but has visitor's mooring buoys
Panarea is smart and small (streets too small for cars) with a couple of intimate hotels popular with the glitterati. For a fine steak we recommend the grill: ANTONIO "il Macellaio". Moorings available off the town sometimes subject to swell.
Salina has good walking, fine wine (that malvasia grape), and capers. Several anchoring possibilities on north and south sides, with a dramatic anchorage in a bay at the north-west corner of the island and a leisure harbour at Santa Marina Salina.
Stromboli is a mini-active volcano puffing small quantities of ash and lava into the air every 20 minutes; very picturesque at night. There's a small village on the NE corner with mooring buoys for a fee, or rather exposed anchorages.
Lipari is a bustling little island with a neat, rather touristy little town tucked around the main port (buy your Malvasia wine here) and a busy, grossly overpriced little 'marina' (over €100 a night). Big incentive to anchor off . . . there are several little anchorages around the island, all exposed to some wind or another.
Vulcano stinks, in places, of sulphurous volcanic fumes. But it is a fascinating place to visit. Two good anchorages separated by an isthmus give options according to wind direction. The town, although tourist-focused, has plenty to see and do. It's a ramshackle place, partly populated by portly visitors with faces covered in mud and dressed in white gowns advertising their hotels. They wallow in the mud baths scattered around the place. Take a walk up the volcano, around the lip of the crater, even to descend into it. Sulphur fumes billow from fumaroles.
(8/10) The East Coast is a 'must visit'. Once south of Messina this is a good cruising with lots to see. Near the straits watch out for extraordinary boats chasing swordfish with high post lookouts - if you're near a shoal they'll rush up and wrap a net around you without a second thought. Perhaps they've been at the rich dark red wine from the SE corner of the island made from the Nero d'Avola or the Stintino grape - good stuff. Open air markets in all the significant towns are superb, with beautifully laid out produce, worth a visit just to enjoy the buzz of local life.
Messina (2/10) Busy, scruffy ferry port with a convenient marina which suffers from bad ferry wash. Make sure your masts aren't aligned with your neighbours unless to want to play at rutting stags . . . and that's no good for the wind instruments. Reggio, on the mainland opposite, has less wash if you have to hang around this area . . .
Taormina. The coves (4/10) at Taormina are small and crowded in season. 22 mooring buoys tended by George Rizzo who lives on a ketch on one of them. Funicular to the town. If the harbour is full, go to:
Naxos. (5/10) Anchor in the large sandy bay some 15nm south. It's easy to enter, but exposed if northerlies are strong. The pontoons in the S corner can then become very uncomfortable. The shallower spots are sometimes busy in high season, but there's loads of room if you don't mind depths up to 10m. Access to Taormina is straightforward.
Taormina Town (9/10) with its Greek/Roman amphitheatre and stunning views, is a 'must visit'. Watch the high-heeled tourists tottering down the (very pretty) cobbled high street and enjoy splendid views.
Riposto, From Riposto marina (very high quality, expense to match, good for wintering) visit Etna volcano, unique in Europe, still bubbling away. It burps from time to time, creating enormous cumulo-nimbus clouds which rain whitewash over passing boats. The small town is little affected by tourism and has a fine food market.
Catania (7/10)has some dull industrial surroundings, but is a fun place with a nearby airport and a helpful tourist office. Use their map to find the two old Roman amphitheatres. Pass the splendid open air market (the fish area is amazing) and enjoy the Piazza del Duomo with its imposing cathedral. Just east, the university sponsors a grand nightlife; cafés and restaurants take over the streets after 8pm and the town really comes to life. The port has marina berths and local yacht club berths.
Syracuse (9/10) is a 'must visit', good shopping and great markets. The tiny fortified island of Ortygia (1km long) covers two and a half millennia of history. The natural centre is (of course) Piazza del Duomo, the cathedral square, with grand old buildings lining the approaches. The cathedral itself incorporates old fluted columns from a Greek temple built around 500BC. newGuardia Costiera ch16 insists on contact before entry 2016, and fines those who don't (2016). Good marina, town quay and cost free to anchor in the well sheltered harbour. Suitable for independent live-aboard wintering. From here, if you have time, visit Noto, a lovely little Baroque town in fine wine country.
(5/10) Not as exciting as the east coast, but a good jumping off point for Malta and Tunisia, and some recently built good value wintering marinas. Worth a visit are:
Sciacca. (5/10) Once you've climbed the 173 steps, Sciacca is a charming town above the harbour, but pontoons and facilities were in poor repair in 2008.
Agrigento, (7/10) about 5nm inland from the coast, is a town with an attractive medieaval heart. It's served by two ports. Porto Empedocle is a naval/commercial port 4nm SW of the town, used by large cruise ships. No anchoring; heavy fines will be levied. Inner harbour marinas serve leisure boats. Better for leisure visitors is the substantial marina at San Leone, 3nm due south of Agrigento, Meditarraneo Yachting Club. The substantial tourist attraction of "Valley of the Temples" lies between Agrigento and San Leone. This series of Greek temple ruins, erected between 600 to 500BC, is a substantial tourist attraction. To escape the crowds, it's best to visit early or late.
Licata, (6/10) about 20nm SSE of Agrigento, is a year round busy town, population 40,000. The big, well sheltered port is about 15 minutes walk from the town. East side of the port is Marina Di Cala Di Sole , with 400 berths in 2016 - more planned. It's good for wintering afloat, with high quality facilities, a live-aboard community, but above average marine growth for long stays. A nearby shipyard has a high capacity lift and storage hard. A local shopping mall serves the marina and associated developments. Bus connections to airports (3hr).
Marina di Ragusa (6/10). This beach resort is quiet in winter, with 4,000 population, but crowds with over 10 times that number in peak season. The 850 berth marina offers competitive discounts, making this a popular site for wintering afloat, with sufficient numbers to create an active live aboard social life. Shore hards, large lifts and cranes can handle big craft.
(3/10) South Italy (bordering the Ionian Sea) is best treated as a coast of passage. Ports and marinas here are cheap by Italian standards, but less value for money than Ionian Greece. Traveling west to east:
Rocella Ionica often silts up by varying degrees over the winter months, and Sibari was once not dredged until June. Do not rely on their availability in early season.
Le Castela is also a reliable safe harbour for vessels under 2m draft, south of Crotone.
Crotone is reliably available, but it's a large and rather expensive harbour which suffers from boat wash.
The Gulf of Taranto is home to several several marinas and boatyards, usually passed by on voyages between Sicily and the Adriatic.
St Maria de Leuca at the heel of Italy is a good staging point. As is:
Otranto, which sometimes suffers serious surge if the northerly bora has raised any swell.
(5/10) Malta (EU, Schengen) includes Gozo, and has lots of small day anchorages which are pretty crowded in peak season. It's fine for weekend sailing, with good connections to UK. But not really big enough to call a cruising area in its own right. This has been, however, a popular and economical (for the western Med) wintering site, though patience is needed to find a winter berth. The technique is to arrive, join the queue, and wait for 'Round the Worlders' and the Middle Sea Race visitors to leave in November. And they do.
Staying Afloat. Surge in the occasional strong NE wind is a problem to be solved if you are leaving the boat afloat. Msida marina is well protected, and is a cheaper choice. Manoel Island marina, more expensive, has good service and supervision - and is central for the Sliema shops and bars, if a bit exposed to surge. Camper and Nicholson's Grand Harbour Marina was the most expensive, and a bit isolated.
Boat yards provide good service and shore storage:
Lampedusa (Italy) is worth a visit if you're passing. It's a tiny, isolated island with a pretty village, very lively in season. There's a marine park with a lovely sand anchorage. You can moor bows/stern to with your own anchor to the village quay, but it's exposed to the south. Photo tour of Linosa and Lampedusa by yacht (beware - big download!)
See also nearby Tunisia
Last updated March 2017