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The storm unleashed its full fury just before sunset and the Tyrrhenian sea quickly became a mass of raging white froth as the biggest waves - well above 12 feet - smashed over 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 our chart for the west coast of Italy showed that the only other 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 a fierce wind - now gusting over 35 knots - we switched on our engine and took down our heavily reefed mainsail, trying to line up Lady Clarabo with the centre of the estuary.

We could just make out two jagged piles of rocks jutting out either side of the entrance and watched in trepidation as the waves crashed one after another into the shallow 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, on to 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, new and old. As darkness descended and we glided slowly up the river we were hailed by a giant of a man on the quay: "People have been sailing up here for more than two thousand years. Welcome to the River Tiber," he bellowed. "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 plan. But I could think of no place I would rather be for it offered excellent protection.

Carlo and I had begun our winter voyage ten days before, aiming to sail 550 nautical miles along the length of Italy's west coast, calling in on as many islands and volcanoes as possible. 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.

Sailing northwards through the busy Straits of Messina, the sun rose behind us as we caught a glimpse through the haze of fiery Mt Etna (3,323m) on the east coast of Sicily. It was the first of four famous volcanoes we were to see on our journey - Vulcano, Stromboli and Vesuvius. .

Later that morning between Scilla and Charybdis, on opposite sides at the northern end of the Straits and both mentioned by Homer over 2,700 years ago in the Odyssey*, we passed close to a 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 a far bigger one 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 delightful fortnight cruising between them in the summer.

We moored up first at the northern end of the island of Vulcano, a strange and forbidding place. Here ancient Greeks believed was the very entrance to Hades itself. I descended into the sulphurous heart of the Gran Cratere before traversing the island on foot. Five hours and 13km later Carlo extracted me by boat from the tiny southern port of Gelso.

We sailed on in dark blue seas to Lipari, the capital and largest of the Aeolians, where we spent the night amid thousands of small fishing boats. Lipari has an excellent restaurant - Da Fillipo's - and a fine 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 then on to the island of Panarea, with its stunning Hotel Raya. Panarea is the most chic of the Aeolians, with dozens of powder blue and white villas. "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, from the Sardinian capital Cagliari, had established himself as a stalwart friend. He gave a slide show of the day's photographs every evening, was prepared to sail day or night and allowed me to manage the boat by myself when the mood took me.

You might think that running a 49 foot yacht alone 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, storms and entering and leaving port made more than one person essential.

Carlo's one 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 red glow of its volcano - which 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 picturesque lighthouse on nearby Strombolicchio and 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 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 Grand Hotel Qvisisana. Later I was offered two perfect Burmese ruby earings at Chanticler's, the famous jeweller's nearby, for a mere €800,000. Capri might be a little faded in places but it still epitomises La Dolce Vita.

After paying port fees of €200 for just one Capri night we sailed next day to the island of Ischia in deteriorating weather. Vesuvius was no longer visible across the great bay as we steered well clear of a storm with a spiralling mini-tornado at its centre. With its imposing castle mount and fine portside restaurants Neapolitans favour Ischia as a decidedly less-expensive alternative to Capri.

From Ischia we sailed early next morning for the long run to the unspoilt isle of Ponza, whose single red warning light guided us away from the Forniche rocks during a stormy arrival in the dark. The winds got up 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 Carlo. Just 36 hours later we were experiencing the most perfect day's sailing of the trip: 25 knots of wind on a broad reach, ending with the storm and our nail-biting arrival up the Tiber.

The following 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. It is an idyllic destination for families with young children.

And so at last to the mainland and our final stop near Pisa: the magnificent new yacht haven in Castiglioncello, the holiday resort made famous by the Italian actor Marcello Mastroianni, who starred in Fellini's 1960s classic La Dolce Vita.

We had been away for just 12 days, not the six long years that Odysseus had wandered whilst battling the gods in his attempt to return home from the Trojan wars. But, if on a less heroic scale, our journey had thrown up its trials and challenges.

*The Odyssey; Homer Oxford World Classics. OUP 1980

** Global Positioning System: GeoNav 4c; www.geonav.it;01929 551608

Richard.Cowper@FT.Com

Richard Cowper sailed a 49' Bavaria yacht charter provided by Cosmos Yachting and flew as guest of Cosmos 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 visited at stand N1712 at the London Boat Show. Contact: 00442088780880 or www.cosmosyachting.com.

Italian Waters Pilot: Rod Heikell; Imray, Laurie, Norie & Wilson; 1998; (01480462114) Wet weather sailing clothes: Musto; www.musto.co.uk; 01268495830

London International Boat Show; Docklands; January 6-16; Customs House, Docklands Light Railway; (08700600246)

Hotel Raya 090983013; info@hotelraya.it
Hotel Qvisisana 0818370788; www.quisi.com
Chantecler 0818370544; www.chantecler.it

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