<<< More 'Opinionated Traveller' stories
Sailing the Dodecanese : Saturday 14th Sept 2002
I'd always wanted to see the islands of Greece. I'd also read that the best way to see the islands was to sail them in your own boat.
To charter a boat in most places you need a qualified skipper. You can charter a yacht with a professional skipper but the quintessential way to do it is what's called a "bareboat" charter - you drive yourself. Of course you need to know what you're doing. Sailing a $400,000 yacht isn't like renting a scooter for the afternoon.
So, I learned how to sail.
I'd sailed a couple of times before but never really spent much time on the water. I tried an exploratory four day course with Eastsail in Sydney's Rushcutter's Bay and put some time in on the Solent in England. Then, when I was transferred to Boston, I joined a yacht club and started sailing every week. Eventually I picked up my "Coastal Skippers" qualification with the Haslar sea school in Gosport.
There are three basic levels of certificate that are the same pretty much anywhere in the world. The first, Day Skipper or Inshore Skipper, allows you to sail in protected waters like Greece or Australia's Whitsundays, usually within sight of land. The second, Coastal Skipper will allow you to venture into more difficult waters and further offshore. The last, Yachtmaster, comes in a variety of forms and allows you to take a yacht offshore, out of sight of land. There is also a Competent Crew certificate for those who just wish to make themselves useful on a yacht. All are highly recommended.
So, twelve months later, we set out on our journey. We picked up the yacht from a marina on Kos on a Friday afternoon and planned to head north into the Dodecanese. The rough itinerary was to go north from Kos to Kalymnos and then up past Leros to Patmos, Lipsi and Arki.
Checkout for the yacht was relatively easy and after a few corrections (a missing fire extinguisher and some faulty instrumentation) our trusty steed, Isis, an Oceanis 381, was ready. We might have made Kalymnos that evening but decided to stay in Kos for a more leisurely start the next morning.
We put to sea in light rain and loitered off Kos waiting for it to pass. From the Kos marina you exit to the east, directly towards the Turkish coastline and the port of Bodrum. As you turn northward towards Kalymnos you round the shoals at Ak Amaglossa and you have to watch for the hydrofoils that zip up and down the coast. Here, I was delighted to spot a bill fish turning backflips off our port beam. A good omen.
Once clear of Kos we raised the sails and turned north-west towards Kalymnos and Pserimos. Pserimos is a tiny island between Kalymnos and Kos and is a stopover for daytrippers from both islands. We made a respectable five knots under main and genoa and pulled into 'Nisos Plati' two hours after leaving Kos.
The islet of Nisos Plati, west of Pserimos, is a tiny island with a sheltered anchorage on its north east. This was my first serious attempt at anchoring and I was justifiably nervous. We had no problems anchoring however and we were soon riding off the 'hook' in about 5m of crystal clear blue-green water.
Ian my co-skipper dove over the railings into the sea and I followed him a couple of minutes later. Swimming off the back of yacht is one of the most delightful experiences and makes trudging up and down the beach seem a little dull. The water off Nisos Plati was clear and green and the fish were inquisitive. After a swim and some lunch we lay down in the sun for a nap. When we arose to contemplate our next step, we discovered the boat had drifted, quite a lot. We recovered our puny little CQR bower anchor and I vowed never to trust it again.
Our next stop was Kalymnos which The Greek Waters Pilot described as a "great craggy lump of rock" that "imparts a feeling of prehistoric permanence". We headed into the main port of Pothia, hoping to get a berth in the Kalymnos marina.
As we pulled into the harbour I looked over the large yellow dredging machine parked where the charts indicated a marina and recalled the words of the charter operator back in Kos : "they've been trying to build a marina in Kalymnos for seven years now, but they just can't get it finished". Resigning myself to an early introduction to the joys of "Mediterranean mooring" we headed up into the town itself to moor against the quay.
Mediterranean mooring is a practical way of parking a boat but is not practiced much outside the Med. It is justifiably viewed with some trepidation by new skippers. You drop your anchor a couple of boat lengths from the quay and back down to moor 'stern-to', at 90 degrees to the wharf. The fact that your average yacht steers like a 5-ton shopping trolley makes the prospect less than simple.
Still we managed without too much trouble and moored to the back of a Dutch boat since the quay was full. With the boat parked and a first day of sailing under our belt we headed off in search of the night's sustenance and a bit of entertainment. The first was provided by a lively local restaurant owner who touted us with the utmost of good manners and won us over. Most of the crew opted for some excellent seafood but in an uncharacteristic poor pick I had the pork souvlaki and spent most of the evening green with envy. The restaurant also featured live music with a keyboard player accompanied by a Greek Eric Clapton on Bouzouki and vocals. We liked the bouzouki player so much we embarrassed him with a round of applause but perhaps not so much as when his mobile rang in the middle of a piece.
Later that night we discovered an open air concert in the main square. I sat for about an hour and listened to the music along with a couple of hundred foot-tapping locals. The stage was set in the corner of the square and against the black backdrop of the vertical crags which surround Pothia on three sides. High above the players, suspended against the night sky, was a brightly lit monastery and the music floated up towards the monks who must have thought it an epiphany.
Early in the morning we arose and set off (etiquette demanding that the last arriving boat leaves first). Well that was the theory. Raising the anchor wasn't that easy. In some mysterious Gordian transformation, another boat's anchor chain had ridden over ours and it took the combined efforts of Simon and Ian to free us while I tried to keep us off the boats around. Eventually we were free and we headed out to sea and (except for one small incident which will remain known only to me, the crew and one slightly irate Greek fisherman) we were off !
In the north of Kalymnos, Emborios is a tiny bay with a cluster of tavernas and little to recommend it other than a beautiful beach and oodles of bright sunshine. The tavernas are described in the Greek Pilot as "yachty friendly" and have even gone to the extent of laying out moorings for visitors. We picked up a mooring without the need to drop anchor and, after a quick swim, brought out the inflatable, fired up the outboard and zipped into the shore. After a swim off the beach, we bought some supplies at the local store and headed back to Isis. In the store we were able to locate a couple of hand-lines so that the more carnivorous of the crew could indulge their primal habits by fishing off the back of the boat.
That evening we thought it only fair to visit the restaurant whose name was emblazoned on the mooring we had captured. Since they hadn't deemed it necessary to charge us a mooring fee it seemed only right to repay the good will in trade. That night we were introduced to the Greek taverna custom of the 'kitchen inspection'. The standard menu of a Greek restaurant can be bit limited, so they like to supplant it with fresh seafood and display it in the kitchen for you to see. Like excited school children, we trooped into the kitchen behind the owner and poked and prodded his fish, examined his prawns and tried to ignore the crayfish that he was desperately hawking. In a moment of weakness I succumbed and ordered the crayfish. Luckily, it seemed that everyone was willing to help me dispose of it.
We grabbed a bottle of from the restaurant and retired to the boat. Getting into the inflatable while inebriated proved a challenge for some of the crew and we nearly lost one over the side during a badly timed lunge to sit down. Back on Isis we opened the wine and lay on the deck and stared up at the Milky Way and talked about how far away work and the rest of the world seemed.
We had a late start the next morning and we didn't get out of the anchorage till about 12pm. The wind was the reliable 15 knot north-west Meltemi and we beat away from Kalymnos and up the coast of Leros. In a long days sailing we covered a good twenty nautical miles (36km) and pulled into Ormos Partheni at about 4pm.
Ormos Partheni was in much the same pattern as Emborios only even less populated. It had at one time been a large military base and sported a full size airstrip, a small army contingent and a considerable boatyard. The were no laid moorings available however and we were forced to anchor in the north east end of the bay. A few yachts were already swinging at anchor and our first attempt with the tiny CQR anchor convinced me it was not to be trusted. Not wanting to spend a sleepless night I decided to lay a second anchor. Digging up our spare, I was pleased to discover it was much larger Danforth and Ian and I laid it from the dinghy. Isis secured, a couple of us went on a scouting party to see if we could locate a suitable spot for dinner.
We were extremely lucky to bump into a retired English marine engineer putting his boat to bed for the season. Approaching him I enquired if he spoke English and after receiving the encouraging reply "frequently" enquired if there was anywhere worth eating. There was, I was told, exactly one place in the surrounding 10 miles where one could eat and if we followed his directions we could meet him there in about 30 minutes.
Thus armed with directions we returned to the boat and everyone prepared to go ashore for dinner. Since we had too many people we had to do two trips with the dinghy and on the last of these we ran out of petrol. I had neglected to check the outboard but luckily I had remembered to bring the oars and there was some enthusiastic rowing later that evening.
We had to walk for fifteen minutes up and over a hill and down into the local taverna. In the taverna we settled down for another delightful meal (swordfish for me) and a few beers. I spotted our nautical-engineering friend and his wife in a corner and went over to have a word. We chatted for a bit and he revealed that for the past seven years he and his wife had summered on Kalymnos and then headed back to Britain for winter. When I pointed out that this might be construed as being the wrong way round I was assured that the Greek winter can be every bit as inhospitable as the British. We also talked briefly about our plans and I got some pointers on local attractions and facilities.
Over desert we discussed our plans. I discerned a certain apathy around the table and suggested we cut down our itinerary. The relief around the table was evident and although everyone would have liked to have seen more, it was decided that we should try a less ambitious route. We returned via the overland track and rowed out to Isis. Everyone slept well that night.
Next morning, we turned south with the wind behind us and started our run down to Lakki. We had chosen Lakki because of its marina and the fact that need to fill up on fresh water. While the boys were content with salt water ablutions the female crew was suggesting a mutiny if we didn't rectify the situation soon.
Lakki is gives the impression of being much larger than it actually is. The town is the main ferry port for Leros and sports a sizable wharf and boardwalk but doesn't extend more than a couple of streets beyond this. The island was occupied by the Italians who invested heavily in Lakki in an attempt to transform it into a kind of Riviera. As the Pilot suggests, "Lakki has the feel of a mock-up for a film about Mussolini ". The whole island of Leros has a bit of a reputation since it was a haven for lunatics, but is much greener and lusher than the surrounding isles.
Determined not to make a mess of mooring again, Ian and I went over the plan in detail as we motored in to Lakki. It turned out to the marina was well laid out and staffed by a large friendly man named Nikos. As we idled towards the quay he waved us over to a particular spot and passed us a "lazy line" as we backed in. The lazy line is a laid anchor with lines running to the quay. You simply back down onto the quay, pick up the line and cleat it off on your bow.
Ian and I went to the Port Police office to complete the formalities and the female portion of the crew disappeared into the shower block with what sounded suspiciously like a stampede. After checking in with the Port Police we returned to the marina office, paid our fees (about 23ECU) and organised for some water to be delivered. When we asked Nikos if he could recommend somewhere nice for lunch he smiled broadly and, gesturing to the extremely large restaurant attached to the marina office said "here?".
While the others went off for a swim, I waited for the waterman in Isis' cockpit with a book. Everyone returned to the boat in the late afternoon and a couple of us went off for a swim at a tiny nearby beach on the approaches to Lakki. That night we went 500m down the road to a nearby tavern and had a disappointing meal but bumped into my marine engineer friend again, who was quite surprised to see us. I explained our change of plans and told him we were heading for a tiny port called Vathi. He told me that there was a bit of "politics" going on in Vathi and while it shouldn't deter us from going we should probably be aware of it. A new taverna had been built in Vathi by some aspiring businessman. The current taverna operators had decided that this might be more competition than they would perhaps enjoy and dynamited the taverna into the ocean. I thought he was pulling me leg.
The next morning we could have returned down the west coast of Kalymnos, the way we had come, but we wanted to detour to the east, towards the coast of Turkey. The channel between Leros and Kalymnos is only about three hundred meters wide but we negotiated the straights off Xerokambos without much difficulty and headed south-east down the coast of Kalymnos.
About three miles off the coast, at Ormos Palionisou, a Greek navy frigate sat drifting slowly south. We'd seen some Greek warships before and had no troubles, but navies don't alway obey the normal rules of the sea, so it's best to give them a wide berth. We were doing this when another warship appeared, bearing down on us from the south. We moved to avoid this one too. Imagine then my consternation when a third warship appeared on the scene, again from the south.
At this point someone put the James Bond sound track on the stereo.
The third warship headed north past us. The two other frigates which had been lying in wait for it, fell in behind it. I suspect that the third warship was Turkish and the Greek frigates had been waiting to play a game of cat-and-mouse. We were glad to be rid of all of them.
About half an hour later we turned slightly west and head into Vathi.
Vathi is a beautiful harbour and has a dramatic entrance. Around Vathi the hills rise in sheer cliffs some three or four hundred metres high and the entrance to the harbour is only twenty or thirty metres wide. Inside the harbour we found a pair of large Greek warships parked on the quay, lending credence to my local friend's taverna-dynamiting story. The large ruined building on the edge of the quay also attested to the explosive practices of Greek taverna owners.
The harbour at Vathi is tiny with barely room on the extended quay for more than seven or eight yachts and only a boat length or two in which to turn your boat. Much to Ian's consternation, I made a snap decision that we were going to moor bows-to and not stern-to, effectively coming in backward. It worked beautifully however and we handled it with a precision that made us looked like seasoned veterans. Later, we were able to sit smugly on the aft deck of Isis and watch a number of ham fisted attempts by some late-comers.
A walk round Vathi proved what a delightful spot it was. Although the entrance is narrow and rocky it soon opens up into a broad-hipped, fertile little valley. The soil is rich and earthy-red and supports citrus plantations and even the odd vineyard. From the cliffs around the harbours entrance at Vathi you get a magnificent view up the valley at sunset.
That night, sitting on the back of the boat, it was particularly difficult to imagine being back at work behind a desk. After a while I took my glass of wine and sat out on the end of the pier and looked at the lights glittering on the shores of Turkey. Sitting there listening to the chorus of cicadas in the hills I could easily imagine that sailing could be something I could do for much, much longer than a week.
The week had been filled with so much sensuous experience that I felt quite drained. Mooring dramas in Pothia, the pulse of bouzouki music in the night, the peace and quiet of Emborios, the stars at Ormos Partheni, the run down the coast to Lakki, the drama of the Vathi harbour and the cold green fingers of the Aegean as you dive off the back of the boat. All bright, tactile memories. I was going to miss my Greek paradise.
We headed out of Vathi the next morning, stopped off at Pserimos one last time and headed back to Kos. Docking in a 25 knot cross wind was a bit of an adventure but we managed it without too much fuss.
I was genuinely sad to see Isis go and could have spent a lot longer exploring the waters of Greece. I would love to go again and spend longer but this holiday has opened up some interesting possibilites. I'm told that Croatia is a beautiful place to sail, Turkey also has a lovely coastline and shares the predictable winds of the eastern Aegean. On the other hand there is the Caribbean, or the Maldives, Mauritius, Thailand. Australia has the Whitsunday Islands or there's Tonga, Tahiti and the Bahamas.
I'm obviously going to have to give this some thought…