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Sailing the Greek Islands
There are many charter cruising grounds throughout the world. Most can be found in five basic locations. The Caribbean Sea, The Mediterranean Sea, The Pacific Islands, The Indian Ocean including SE Asia, and The Whitsunday Islands. We tossed a coin between two of them, and it turned up The Greek Islands.
I contacted the charter company we had used in the Whitsundays, who put me onto a charter company in Melbourne, who organised our holiday through Sun Yachting Greece, a charter company in Athens. I will elaborate more on this during the story.
In the contract we signed, I had noted that there was a clause insisting that at least two persons aboard must have 'sailing qualifications' or we would have to pay a professional skipper to accompany us aboard. No one could tell me what sailing qualifications were required. There are many sail training schools around the world, and most are affiliated with large organisations. This assists in having qualifications internationally recognised. These courses are excellent and range from Beginner to Ocean Yachtmaster. I did an Inshore Skippers course, and Eileen did a Competent Crew course at Mooloolaba. They involved a period of classroom time and practical time at sea, including basic handling under sail and motor, ropework, anchoring, and some navigation. We received logbooks with lots of bright stamps and signatures, and we were ready.
For this holiday Ryan and Vickie came with us again. Because we flew Singapore Airlines, we had a stopover in Singapore before continuing on to Athens. Singapore Airport is large enough to keep most shoppers busy for hours while waiting for their next flight. Flying over the Persian Gulf we couldn't help but notice the oil industry even at night. Below us, bright concentrations of lights were linked by single strips of lights that stretched for miles in random patterns. Each one looked like a model of a huge molecule that one sees in a chemistry class.
Athens Airport had no non-smoking regulations at that time, and every section was filled with smokers. After a few uncomfortable hours we boarded our connecting flight to the island of Samos. Before we had visited a non-English speaking country in the past, we had bought a phrase book and acquainted ourselves with a few basics. "Hello", "Please" and "Thank you", "Where are the toilets?", and "I don't have any money" are good ones. In Australia I had picked up a Greek phrase book, looked at all the strange characters, and decided we would have to find people who spoke English.
They don't on the outer islands! We managed to explain to the taxi driver to take us to the waterfront, but he had to stop and ask several locals to interpret the instructions I had to get to the marina. He kept wanting to take us to hotels. Eventually we drove out onto a quay at Pythagorion and I recognised the name on one of the boats, 'Kimothoi'. The owner was waiting to greet us. Normally this is the job of the managing charter company.
The boat was a fairly new Beneteau 411. Angelos the owner had delivered it due to convenience. He also gave us the briefings. This was to be a one-way charter. Samos is close to the coast of Turkey. From here we would make our way to Athens. I had worked out a rough tour plan of the islands in the Aegean Sea that we would stop at.
|Fishing boats in Samos Harbour|
Thankfully Angelos spoke English. He gave us his local knowledge and devised a better route. He also told us that if we had any difficulties with the boat in marinas it would be the fault of harbour authorities and not ours. I didn't understand what he meant so he explained that some silly things had been done in some of the marinas and berthing could be quite difficult. We had a copy of the Greek Water Pilot, an excellent book with text and pictures describing the waters and marinas of every island, but Angelos gave us first hand recent knowledge of any vagaries in advance.
Despite giving us thorough briefings about the boat and our route, he didn't want to go with us for a test sail. He did take our papers, the boat's papers, and our well-stamped logbooks to the local Port Police, and returned them ready for departure. I asked him about anchoring before 4pm and not leaving before 8am, and what to do about radio scheds at those times. He replied, "If you intend sailing at night just make sure the navigation lights are working, and give me a call on my mobile phone every couple of islands."
This was very different to the Whitsundays.
Let me explain what a 'Med moor' is. In the Mediterranean Sea there is no tide apart from near the Strait of Gibraltar. This is because there is too much water trying to get in and out of the narrow neck of the strait for a tidal effect to occur in the main body of the sea. Consequently there is no need for floating marina pontoons or pile moorings to allow boats to compensate for the rise and fall. Here you can tie up to a stone wall.
You can nose in to the quay, or go in stern-to; your choice. Stern-to is much more common. The approved method is to put inflated fenders along both sides of the boat, find a gap between two other boats, drop the anchor about three boat lengths out, and reverse into the gap. If necessary some crew may need to push the other boats off if the gap is very tight. We also placed fenders at the stern to avoid damage against the stone quay. When the boat was suitably close to the quay, a nimble person (Ryan) would leap ashore and tie off the port and starboard mooring lines to fixtures on the quay. We would then place our timber 'gangplank' from the boat to the dock, step ashore, and walk the few paces to the nearest taverna.
|Kimothoi in Pythogoria Marina, Samos|
We did not have any difficulty finding parking spaces at any island, as this was mid April. The winter season was just over, and not many boats were in charter yet. During the middle of summer the islands are crowded, and rafting up is common.
Before we departed for our first island hop, we spent a couple of days relaxing and enjoying Samos. I had gone to the office of the Port Police to ask for a weather forecast. In Australia we are used to the wind strength being given in knots. A knot is one nautical mile per hour. A nautical mile is 1852 metres, or slightly longer than an imperial mile. The officer replied, "Six".
"Six knots", I said,"That's nearly nothing. We're not going anywhere".
"Beaufort six", he added.
|Pythogoria Marina when it's busy|
This was entirely different. The definition of Beaufort scale six is wind strengths 22 to 27 knots. This means large waves beginning to form with white foam crests and spray. "We're not going anywhere," I repeated.
It's a wind range for a 12 metre boat that you probably wouldn’t go out in unless you had to because it would be uncomfortable, but if you are caught out when it comes up you should be able to manage. 10 knots to 20 knots is ideal.
When the forecast conditions had not eventuated by about midday, I decided to go for a shakedown sail to get acquainted with the sailing characteristics of the boat. Our departure was uneventful and we had a great sail. The breeze finally came in, but only to about 20 knots. Then we had to park the boat.
The wind at 20 knots was blowing across the boat as I lined it up with the space we had left a few hours earlier. Because of the underwater design of a fin-keeled sailboat, a wind blowing across the boat will push the bow around. This means it is very difficult to keep in a straight line at manoeuvring speed. I managed to allow Kimothoi to blow down onto the anchor rope stretching forward of the neighbouring trawler. This spun our stern around. It did mean we were perpendicular to the dock again, but instead of being lined up with the gap we were now lined up with the bow of the trawler.
Abort attempt number one.
After extricating our keel from the trawler’s anchor rope, we had another go…..with not a much better result. Luckily we got it right on the third attempt. At least we had provided some entertainment for the locals on the quay.
One of the tavernas was owned by a family from New Zealand, so we had locals to converse with. The girls went shopping to provision the boat. Language did become a problem here when Eileen was trying to describe self-raising flour. While they were shopping I added an adornment to the boat.
Our holiday coincided with the time when the USA was bombing Kosovo. Greeks have loved Aussies ever since we helped them out during WW11. Turks have loved Aussies ever since they belted us at Gallipoli during WW1. I didn't know whether they liked Americans or not, so I didn't want to be mistaken for them. Britain was involved in the Kosovo conflict as well, so I didn't really want to display the Australian flag, as the Union Jack in the corner could have us mistaken for Brits. I had specifically brought a boxing kangaroo flag for this purpose of identification. I attached it to the backstay just below the Greek courtesy flag. It worked. Every port we entered we were recognised and welcomed.
|Looking up at Patmos Monastery|
|The Party Room|
We finally departed Samos and headed for Patmos. Navigation was with chart (in Greek) and compass, GPS, and line of sight as many of these islands tower thousands of feet above sea level. Once again the sailing was excellent, until the afternoon when it came in at the forecast Beaufort 6. When this happened we were just entering a channel that was only a mile or so wide between Patmos and a neighbouring island. The wind was coming directly down the channel on the nose. We reduced the amount of sail aloft, and used the diesel auxiliary motor for assistance. We made short tacks until we saw the entrance to the harbour. To get there we had to travel a few miles beam-on to the short sharp waves that had developed.
After that little bit of unpleasantness we were in the sheltered harbour of Patmos. We still had to tie up. At least here there were no other boats and a wide empty quay. I still mucked it up the first time, but I got it right on the second attempt.
Patmos is the home of the Greek Orthodox Church, the Jerusalem of the Aegean. It was here while in exile that Saint John wrote Revelation the Apocalypse, the last book of the New Testament. In continuous operation for over 900 years is a huge monastery on a hill. Subjected to raids by Saracens and Norman pirates, the monastery was frequently enlarged and fortified, giving it a castle like appearance. We took a taxi up, explored the public areas, admired the view, and walked back down. Along the quay we saw donkeys used as private transport, and in a restaurant we discovered true Greek Souvlaki.
Next day was to be our longest sail, 53 nautical miles to the island of Amorgos. Because we were experiencing about fifteen hours of daylight, we didn’t need to leave until about 8am. After about five miles I realised our GPS was not working. I reset it, searched for loose connections, and made sure there was nothing obstructing the antenna, but apart from that there was not a lot I could do to try to fix it. Back to my good old chart and compass skills.
|The harbour below Patmos Monastery|
I had made one mistake. I had not noted the distance log. The chart showed the entrance to the harbour of Katapola to be just past the small island of Nikoyria, and in about the middle of the long part of the big island. We didn't notice any small island. It is only separated from Amorgos by a few hundred metres and we had passed to the outside of it. I was still not really used to having the sun up at 8pm, so at 4pm I was a little nervous about getting in before dark. We could see what appeared to be an island in the distance, but it had a navigation light on it. The only light shown on the chart was on the island of Psalidia at the extreme end of Amorgos. Then I looked more closely at the shoreline just aft of our beam and noticed a collection of buildings in what appeared to be an inlet. Thankfully this was Katapola. We turned back and motored in towards the tiny quay.
|Sailing the Greek Islands|
Inside the harbour we tried the stern-to Med moor again, and got it right first time...almost. We were tied fast at the stern, but realised that our anchor chain was hanging straight down which meant our anchor must have dragged. The officer from the Port Police was nearby and he told us to just tie up beam-to the quay. "There won't be any other boats coming in tonight," he said.
Within the hour, three other boats arrived, but they managed to do their Med moor without needing us to move.
This was another overnight stop only, and next morning was the best sail we had. Our destination was the internationally famous Santorini, except we couldn't take our boat there. Getting the boat there was not the real problem; mooring it was. Angelos had advised us to continue on to Ios and catch a ferry back.
Santorini was created by a huge volcanic eruption. Some legends say that this is related to the lost city of Atlantis. Santorini is now shaped like a teacup. There are a couple of gaps in the edges where vessels can come and go, and a blob of 'coffee' floating in the middle. The mooring difficulty is obvious. At each of the couple of tiny quays there is a substantial floating buoy about 30 metres off. If a vessel moored stern-to without tying to a buoy, they would have their rudder close to the wall and their anchor in hundreds of feet of water. Hence the buoy. The only other mooring option would be to anchor on the far side of the caldera and dinghy back. The anchorage bottom is mostly rock so someone would have to stay with the boat at all times on anchor watch.
We took a high-speed ferry across from Ios, wandered through the streets and tourist shops and cafes, and took a slow ferry back at sunset. Like I said about a few other places, do yourself a favour and go there.
|5km by bus, or this!|
Ios is known as the party island, but we were there too early in the season for the crowds. We just enjoyed some pleasant walks to various parts of the island. Our neighbours at the quay were on a skippered charter from New Zealand. The skipper organised everything for his group, including the 50-foot boat from a local charter company. One of his group played guitar and sang, so that night we had a party aboard both boats with Ryan providing our musical talent.
In a northerly direction, the island of Naxos is between Ios and Mykonos, and right beside Paros to the west. It was here that the boxing kangaroo flag paid off. The marina was being reconstructed so it took some manoeuvring to get into a spot. Next to us was an American cruising boat flying a huge Stars and Stripes above a smaller Greek courtesy flag. This is not maritime protocol. Your country's flag should not be significantly larger, or flown significantly higher than the flag of the country you are visiting. A group of inebriated Greek fishermen noticed this and an ugly dialogue started. Thankfully we were ignored.
|Restaurants on the quay at Naxos|
The Naxos town esplanade had numerous restaurants under awnings in front of the tavernas. The main delicacy must have been calamari (not to be confused with 'kalimera' which means hello) for there was a lot of octopus drying on racks. It took some getting used to the Greek eating hours. They don't come out to dinner until about 10pm. We were mostly asleep by then.
My visit to the Port Police here taught me another lesson. During the day there had been a procession of cars and people along the esplanade on the quay. It was obviously a wedding. While the officer was attending to our paperwork I casually commented about it. His English was not as good as I had thought. More explanation didn't seem to be working so I included arm gestures such as pointing to my wedding ring. After he had finished with our paperwork he called another officer into the room and he beckoned me to follow him. I did, and he took me into another room and offered me a seat on the other side of his desk. Then very slowly and deliberately he said to me, "Please speak slowly as I do not speak English very well. Where did you lose your wife?"
I decided never to make polite casual conversation to the Port Police again.
Naxos is fairly large, and our schedule was looking good, so we decided to take a local bus to the town of Appolonia on the other side of the island. This was as much fun as any sailing part of our holiday. The bus was full size, and not new, but it was serviceable. The youngish driver had a sprung seat, which would have caused many people to have motion sickness on the rough hilly roads, but he didn't seemed to mind. In fact he chatted jovially with many of his Greek speaking local passengers, and occasionally burst into song with the traditional Greek music playing on the radio.
|Streets of Mykonos|
The road was often very hilly and very twisty with spectacular views, especially when going around hairpin bends. The front of the bus, which was by design set well in front of the front wheels, would be suspended out over the cliff. Cheerful and frequent use of the horn notified oncoming traffic and straying goats that we were approaching blind corners.
On the water again and we were off to Mykonos which is equally as famous as Santorini. The Greek Water Pilot and Angelos had warned about possible difficulties with mooring here. The Greek Water Pilot mentioned that weed was growing on the sandy bottom of the harbour. This meant that we should drop our anchor about five boat lengths out instead of the usual three to make sure we were properly snugged in. Angelos had explained that we would be tying up to buttresses instead of directly to the quay. Apparently to bolster the quay wall the local authorities had dumped loose rocks and boulders off the edge of the quay. What this caused was for boats doing their Med moor to bottom out on the rocks and boulders. Hence the buttresses. There were about a dozen of them protruding about four metres out from the quay. We chose one about ten out from the side wall. They separated boats by about four metres so there was no danger of hitting your neighbour. We did our by now perfected Med moor, with the usual port and starboard stern lines to our chosen buttress. We also ran lines from our bow to the buttresses on either side of us.
One morning we awoke to see a huge ferry lying broadside to all of the moored yachts, about 50 metres in front of us. She was loading and unloading vehicles and passengers from her stern ramp onto the side wall. Then she gave several blasts of her horn and started to wind up the ramp, haul in her anchor, and turn on the bowthruster to push herself out of the harbour. My sudden concern was that where she was pulling her anchor from was in about a line with where our anchor was dropped two extra boat lengths out than normal. Now remember we had here four mooring lines holding us into our buttress. If the ferry pulled our anchor chain up with hers while that bowthruster was under full power, I figured she would pull our boat in half. I couldn't speak Greek so the radio was useless. I just sat and watched and hoped. I seem to have a lot to give thanks for this holiday, and once again, thankfully, when the ferry's anchor finally appeared, ours was still submerged.
I had an eventful trip to the Port Police here too. First of all I couldn't find it. It looked obvious from the marina with its red domed roof. But in amongst the maze of streets it was not that easy to find. Winding narrow cobblestone streets are endemic in the Greek Islands. Their purpose was originally to hinder marauding pirates and other invaders from attacking in numbers. Two abreast was about as good as it got.
All of the other islands had charged us about $Au5 per night. The Port Police at Mykonos gave me a bill for $Au15 per night. They watched me read it thoroughly, and then when I questioned the amount they produced a calculator and punched away for a while and then gave me a new total that was closer to what I expected.
This day was Eileen and my 25th wedding anniversary. There is a famous al fresco restaurant beside the beach, away from the hubbub of the town. The setting features in many sunset photographs. This was where we had our anniversary dinner.
We took another ferry ride to the nearby island of Delos. It was known as the largest port in the ancient world. There are substantial ruins of buildings, statues, and amphitheatres throughout the island, and a modern museum to display archaeological discoveries, and a model of the port as it would have been when at its active peak. No one was allowed to be born or to die on the island. Pregnant women and any sick people were removed and taken to the island of Rhinia, just a few hundred metres away. If these rules were not adhered to the priests had to perform elaborate rituals to purify the island.
The next port of call was the island of Syros. We called in here because the girls had heard that they manufactured the best Turkish Delight in the world. The harbour looked cyclone proof. Not that they get cyclones here, but the balloon shape assured us that no strong winds could affect our stay here. How misguided can you be?
It wasn't the wind, but another enormous ferry that upset our day. All around this quay there was a continuous length of two-inch water pipe on brackets that supported it out from the wall, and about four inches below the level of the top of the wall. This was what everyone tied their mooring lines to. Our neighbour here was a single-handed German sailor who had tied up bow-to. He was over talking to us as we tidied up after tying up. The ferry came in and went broadside to its commercial wharf several hundred metres away. However its wave from the broadside came our way. It hit us just as we were securing the gangplank. Now this was a balloon shaped marina. There was no way this wave could continue its path. It reflected against the quay wall.
|The ballooned harbour of Syros|
As Kimothoi lifted with the first wave and surged out from the wall, our gangplank lifted off the top of the wall and fell down between the wall and the stern of the boat. I tried to grab it to lift it back up again before the boat end of the gangplank punched a hole in the fibreglass transom. It got my leg instead. Luckily, and thankfully again, it didn't break my leg, and when the boat surged up and out again I tried again. Again I failed, and this time the end of the gangplank slammed into one of the stainless steel rods that allowed the helmsperson's seat to be raised for use, or lowered to allow step-through access to the sugar scoop. The bend it put in that made sure it was not going to perform its function for the rest of our charter. I hoped Angelos was going to remember his telling us that mishaps in marinas were the fault of the local authorities. Third time lucky and I was able to get the gangplank up out of the way. Our German friend in the meantime was having troubles of his own. Because he had gone in bow-to, his bow anchor was still sitting on the bow roller. As his boat surged it hooked the anchor onto the pipe around the wall on the down sweep. On the up sweep, instead of releasing it, the anchor hooked around the pipe, causing immense pressure on the anchoring tackle and the pipe. Ryan and I raced over with him and on the next up surge we grabbed the 40 lb plough anchor and held it in the air until the wave dissipated.
While chatting with the German later I asked about what had sounded like explosions we had heard while sailing between Mykonos and Syros. At the time we had looked in the general direction of Kosovo. Of course we were too far away to have heard or seen any sign of the war there. He suggested that we should have looked for very small fishing boats, ones too small to carry nets.
We walked the streets of the town and bought some of the Turkish Delight. Then we spent the night with the gangplank tied up in case of any more surging waves.
|Korissia Harbour, Kea|
We motored all the way from Syros to Kea. Eileen thought Kea was the prettiest island so far. She fell in love with a house on the hill above the marina at Korissia. I fell in love with the taverna twenty metres from our boat. Kea is also known for the antique car rally held each June. We saw a few interesting vehicles driving along the streets.
Our departure from Kea was earlier in the morning than usual because I suspected there would be very little breeze, and we had a long way to go to our final destination of Kalamaki Marina at Athens. We let Ryan and Vickie sleep in as I untied, and Eileen motored us out of the harbour. As we motored out into the sea the fog set in. Visibility was down to less than one hundred metres. We did not have radar, and we did not have a radar reflector. Sails are not seen by radar so we were invisible to ships, and we were approaching the main shipping lanes leading into Pireas, the main commercial port for Athens. We could hear ship's foghorns, and occasionally we heard fishermen tapping on the hulls of their boats, but we saw nothing.
We also couldn't see land, and our GPS was still not working, so I did not know exactly where we were. There is a long barren island called Makronissos that parallels the mainland coastline that we had to avoid. Once around its southern tip we had to alter course for Kalamaki. And this course paralleled the shipping lanes. A mistake on my part and we could hit the island or the mainland, or sail across one of the busiest roadsteads in the world.
I asked for the motor to be turned off so we could hear better, and raised the sails. We ghosted along at about three knots, listening and looking intently. Because of the angle of the slight breeze we had, we could not sail on a course that I was confident would have us miss Makronissos. At best we would be at an angle of about fifteen degrees to it. We sailed on this course that I was fairly sure would have us hit it, for about five miles, then tacked out for about one mile. We did this several times until someone saw a sail through the fog. The fog cleared a bit more and we could see land. I still didn't know what land it was. On the shore was a preserved ruin that looked like the Parthenon. I knew we couldn't be that close to Athens. The chart showed a similar feature called the Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion. At least now I knew where we were.
We rounded the cape and followed the coast to Kalamaki. Recreational shipping was allowed to be between the area of the designated shipping lanes and the shore. At one point the chart showed a reef extending out from the shore. I calculated a course to miss it, but as we drew level with its location, and I thought about half a mile outside it, Eileen who was on the helm, called that the depth sounder reading was coming up dramatically. She swung the helm to port and altered course by 90 degrees. The water depth increased and we turned back onto our original course but another half a mile out. I looked behind us and watched two other boats make the same manoeuvres. Either the chart was wrong (not unheard of) or the other skippers had made the same navigational error. Worse than that, they could have just been following me.
Angelos was expecting us as we motored into Kalamaki Marina. We had rung him from Kea. The marina was built to take 1200 boats. It never has less than 2000. As we motored along a channel between two fingers we saw Angelos on a boat pointing to a space beside him. Without going into a lot of science about reversing single propellered keelboats in confined spaces, let me just say that it is not easy. Because one of our potential neighbours was protruding a long way out of his berth, Angelos yelled to stop our boat, reverse back out of the channel, turn around and reverse back in to him, and he and some friends would assist us to reverse into our berth.
|The Royal Greek Yacht Club|
Whhhew. Nothing broken, no one bleeding.
While we were unloading, an attractive young Greek girl with an A4 clipboard and a biro came up and asked, "And what do you think of the services of Sun Yachting?"
"Considering you are the first and only contact I have had with Sun Yachting, it is very difficult to make a judgement," I replied.
We caught a taxi into the city to the Athens Gate Hotel. This was our first experience with the cost of European accommodation. For a motel of the same standard back in Australia we would expect to pay about $AU80 per night per room in 1999. Here, our tariff was $AU180. We thought they meant for our two night stay. No! Per night! Ryan and Vickie went to a back-packers.
In Athens we visited the extremely busy Acropolis, a museum, the Plaka, and the Royal Greek Yacht Club. The club building is designed to resemble a very large powerboat. We weren't allowed inside though because we did not have formal attire. An Aussie yachtie on holiday with a suit and tie? Get real!
Our last evening meal was on the rooftop of the hotel with a magnificent view of the Acropolis under lights. Maybe that's what we paid so much for. I gave Ryan and Vickie the boxing kangaroo flag and they stayed to back-pack around Greece for another few weeks. Eileen and I flew back to Singapore. There is a service in Singapore called the 'Hop-on Bus'. It is a guided bus tour of the city with many stops. Eileen and I have done it a couple of times now, but always between flights, and so far we have never stayed awake for the duration. We did visit Raffles Hotel for a few drinks in The Long Bar. Two beers and a Singapore Sling cost $S29.99. I even got my one cent change.
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