Updated 12/2015: The sailing school I went to at Casa Della Vela is no longer in operation, however this hotel in Ischia offers something similar! However – the hotel – Casa Della Vela is still open and run by Andreas. You can see more information here about Casa Della Vela.
I grew up in the land-locked Midwest. The real Midwest – home to corn fields as far as the eye can see. This is not an area that produces good sailors….and I’m no exception. The only place water sports took place was in my neighbor’s pool or the creek behind my house. Then there was also the white trash pool…the sprinkler. Regardless of the lack of water around my birthplace, I still loved the water. I would beg my mom to let me go out and play in the thunder storms just to get wet…I never said I was a smart kid.
The first time I saw the ocean I was about 12 years old. I was in awe of its size, smell, and sound; however, it intimidated me. It was salty and unpredictable, and unknown creatures lived in it…therefore I always preferred the pool. I was 26 years old the first time I set foot on a sailboat and really sailed – the kind of sailing where you felt as if you could slip off the boat and into the ocean to be lost at sea. I was fascinated by the thrill of heeling over, and how in the world we didn’t tip over completely. I viewed the captain of the sailboat as a miracle worker…as if he could change water into wine. Sailors have an instinct that I just don’t possess when it comes to the water and weather…it’s impressive. Every time I have a chance to sail…I’ll do it! So when I found this sailing school in Ischia – I knew that I had to sign up! I had simply found the school by doing searches on Google. I had about 6 extra days until I needed to be in Rome, and I was done with touristy Sorrento. I exchanged some emails with the owner of the school, Andrea, and decided this would be the perfect place to take a little vacation from my traveling and learn to sail!
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Ischia Italy a Hidden Gem
After 2 months of traveling in Italy, I found that you seldom came across a town that wasn’t infiltrated by tourists (Ferarra was an exception). They arrived on big tour buses, following their little group leader as if they were the paparazzi following Paris Hilton into jail. The tour leader held some sort of obnoxiously brightly colored flag so that the paparazzi wouldn’t lose him. Sometimes, it even went one step worse and everyone in the tour group had to all wear some obnoxiously colored scarf or t-shirts that matched…as if they were branded cattle that may wander off and get lost and the scarf would help them find their way back to their orange herd, or it would help the leader herd them all back together…kill me now. Granted, maybe when I’m older and can’t carry 60lbs of luggage around with me and take local trains and travel to weird places on my own, maybe then I will take one of these tours…however, I will NEVER wear a matching scarf. I think I ought to start a cool tour company for the over 70 crowd…one that bring individualism, culture, and adventure back into travel…even though you may not be able to climb a mountain…you certainly don’t need to be dressed the same. Oops…I digress.
I got tired of all of this after a while. It was as if I were living in Times Square in December…I starting feeling cynical about Italy…the place I used to love. I felt as if it were this animal that only survived on tourism – not the lovely country with a beautiful language and amazing history and towns…instead – it was just one big limoncello stand selling postcards, aprons, magnets, and any other tacky gifts to herds of orange scarf people.
Then I stepped off the ferry in Ischia – the place where I fell back in love with Italy. People here spoke Italian, people had real jobs that didn’t center around tourism, there wasn’t a ton of tour operators the moment you stepped off the boat trying to sell you tours and overpriced taxi rides. The island of Ischia is off of the coast of Naples in Campagna. I consider Ischia the stepsister of the beautiful Capri Island. Capri for some unkown reason has all of the popularity and it exists soley for tourism…it really doesn’t operate outside of the tourist months in the summer…and I have come to really dislike that. I want to experience locals and see how people live day to day. However – it’s really difficult to do that in places like Capri, Positano, or Sorrento…they exist for tourism. Ischia however is a real working island. Sure – they do have tourists, but they don’t solely depend on them to keep afloat. The island is beautiful and lush, and full of thermal waters and springs…I honestly don’t know why more Americans don’t come here…but secretly – I was happy they were all in Capri and Positano! I stayed in Casamicciola, a small fishing town with an amazing view and mountains. It was just me, some German tourists and some Italian tourists…perfect, this is Italy!
A Hotel with a View of Ischia
I was welcomed into the Ischia Casa Della Vela hotel and sailing school. It was this beautiful little oasis of a hotel on top of a hill – painted a stunning shade of yellow, with a bright blue pool in contrast. I was excited to meet Andrea as I had conversed with him quite a bit over email before I decided to sign up for the school. His wife, Kate, was from Australia and they met when he was captaining a yacht in Australia. They were immediately warm and welcoming. The lobby was bight and airy – it wasn’t ultra fancy…instead, it felt like a home. After lugging my heavy luggage up the hill, they provided me some of the best lemonade I’ve ever had! The kind that was full of pulp and ice cold…perfect since I was sweating profusely from the heavy lifting. They have a lemon grove behind the hotel and make fresh lemon juice daily.
Andrea checked me into a big room with a huge balcony terrace with chairs and a table that overlooked the pool and the magnificent sea. I walked out on the terrace and was immediately in love with the place. When you travel for 9 months, you never really have a home – a place to just eat dinner in, put your feet up on the couch, sink back into a chair in your pj’s and just veg out. Instead, you are always at someone else’s place, never feeling completely comfortable, eating out constantly. However, my terrace was my new living room. I would just sit there in my pj’s and watch the world go by, eating dinner I picked up at the local deli. The only things missing were my cat and my Tivo…but after 9 months I have learned to live without them…sad but true. This feeling of being home was also possible because Kate and Andrea were so accommodating. Kate would give me bus tickets to use, a phone card to call the states, plates and silverware from the kitchen to use for my terrace dinners. I hung my clothes out to dry on the terrace…and I watched the sun set every night from my little haven.
Ah – but I wasn’t just here to sit on my terrace and drink beer in my pj’s or to simply go to the botanical gardens, and see the castle – I was here for a purpose…to learn how to sail! Andrea had an impressive background. He had sailed in 2 races around the world – he was a seaman through and through. I thought to myself…we’ll see if he can take this Midwesterner who hasn’t even driven a car for 4 years and teach her how to sail…that may just be a miracle – or it could end up like the Titanic! On the first day of class…I sat out on the sunny porch listening to Andrea talk about wind and drawing great little diagrams that took me back to my college physics class…somewhere back in the far recesses of my brain. He started off by saying that when on a boat, you should never believe that you are not stupid…always assume the person next to you is stupid. Hmmm – my kind of sport – he already knows that I’m stupid – now I don’t have to spend so much effort hiding it!
Taking sailing classes in Ischia
Andrea had the personality of my father…he was logical, a purist, and he had this air about him that commanded you to pay attention. Or maybe I was just paying attention because I was afraid of being the first student to fall off the boat! He taught me the correct terminology…in English thank god! He drew triangles, he showed me how to see which way the wind was coming by looking at he ripples on the water (yet I never really did master this…it was like looking at one of those funny paintings where you had to relax your eyes and mind and all of a sudden you would see another picture within a picture…it made my head hurt), he showed me how to see a gust of wind coming, and mainly I learned how to tie knots! Being able to tie a good knot will always come in handy in life…kind of like knowing how to drive a manual transmission vehicle…always a good skill to have. You never know when you are going to have to tie up a cow and drive it back home on a tractor…see…these things could happen! You never really can predict what weird situations you will be in from one country to the next.
After an hour of theory lessons, we walked to the boat where the hands on lesson started! The boat was a racing yacht (for those of you out there that think a yacht is one of those huge motorized boats, not necessarily true. The original meaning of the word yacht was solely to describe sailing vessels. The big fancy boats came along after the fact and started using the name!) Andrea’s boat is called Istria – named after a part of Italy where his mother grew up (however it is now considered Croatia). The boat was serious…this wasn’t a cruising vessel…this was a real sailing vessel!
Everywhere you looked there were ropes, winches, pulleys, and multiple sails ready below deck for various conditions. We took off and got out of the harbor, turned off the motor, put up sail and sat down to one of the nicest sandwiches I’ve had in a long, long time. It was a real American type sandwich – bread, meat, cheese, tomato, avocado, lettuce…the works! Oh how I miss a good sub sandwich! We spent the next 4 hours on the water practicing the maneuvers that I had learned about earlier. I excelled at using the winch, I even got comfortable with the terms and describing the maneuver we were doing correctly. However, when I was asked to take the helm…my talent ran out! That big wheel isn’t like power steering on a car! It was challenging to keep a course correctly in the wind. I especially was challenged if we were sailing towards open sea and I didn’t have a landmark to aim towards. Andrea would tell me that there was an innate feel to being able to keep the boat on a fetch…sailing at that exact angle with the sails trimmed just right. You had to pay attention to the sound and feel of the wind on your body, the pressure and resistance on the wheel at the helm. I was clearly much better at the manual labor…but the important thing is that I tried – and that Andrea was totally patient with me as I would steer us off course. When I did end up off course, the sails would go flapping around in the wind loudly notifying me that I had screwed up as if it were a young child screaming that it was hungry…hungry for the wind!
That night off in the distance it was getting really dark – a storm was definitely coming…hopefully not the Perfect Storm! Since Andrea could determine it’s direction just by looking at it, he made the executive decision that we better run for it! We pulling down the sails, motored up the boat and tried to outrun the storm and make it back to the harbor. Great…my first day at sea and we had a big dark, windy, thunderous storm on our ass…now this was adventure! Alessandro and I hurried about the boat trying to get everything buttoned down and put away the best we could. We actually pulled into the harbor when the rain started to come. We tied up the boat and went for cover below…just in time before the skies opened up and it hailed! We did what any good sailors would do in this situation…we drank. Andrea had a bottle of limoncello on board – so we got out the glasses and drank limoncello out of plastic coffee cups listening to the hail loudly pound the boat! It was a fun time to just hang out and get to know each other…and be extremely thankful that we made it into harbor on time! Andrea was simply happy because he wouldn’t have to hose down the boat now….Mother Nature took care of that. Alessandro and I were happy that we had limoncello…overall – a successful first day of sailing!
Learning to sail
The second day of classroom instruction included learning about the Bernoulli Principle. My head hurt…the last time I had to think about splitting air particles was about 20 years ago. I was sitting in my high school physics class dressed like Madonna, wondering why in the world I had to learn this stuff when I would never use it in life – after all, this Bernoulli guy wasn’t going to help me be the next Material Girl. Now I’m sitting in Italy in front of a white board learning it all again 20 years later…life is a wild ride sometimes. The second day of hands-on sailing included practicing our tacks and learning how to pick a point in the distance and how to go through the process of making it there doing various tacks. We also practiced man overboard drills! It was a great exercise to figure out how to get back to an exact point close enough to pick someone up. We thankfully threw a life preserver in the sea instead of a person and then would go back and pick it up. I also learned the proper way to warm someone up who was hypothermic…luckily I didn’t have to practice this with the life preserver. I was always amazed at Andrea’s understanding of the water, wind, and the boat – there was definitely a feel and knowledge that came after years and years and years of sailing experience. After day 2 of sailing…I was still pretty good at manual labor.
The final day of sailing included more lessons on Bernoulli, and more practice at maneuvers…and more yummy sandwiches! It was a beautiful day of cruising around with good wind and an amazing view. The island is really beautiful when approaching it from the sea. I enjoyed the peace and quiet being out on the water. I honestly didn’t want to go to Rome the next day…it would be loud and dirty – not quiet and calm like Ischia. That night out on my balcony I celebrated the fact that I successfully completed my beginning sailing class without falling overboard! I actually learned quite a bit – now I just need to find a man with a sailboat so that I can keep on practicing! Or at the very least I probably know enough to stow away on a boat and work the winch! After staying in Ischia for 5 days, I honestly didn’t explore the island much, however, I did get to explore the waters. Sure, I went to the castle and some beautiful botanical gardens, but there were many other activities that I skipped such as the thermal spas (what the island is mainly known for), hiking trails, geological tours, and wineries. Instead, I preferred to sit on my terrace watch the sun go down with a cold Peroni. A perfect vacation for this weary traveler!
Updated 12/2015: The sailing school I went to at Casa Della Vela is no longer in operation, however this hotel in Ischia offers something similar! However – the hotel – Casa Della Vela is still open and run by Andrea. You can see more information here about Casa Della Vela.